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The Word

Why ‘personhood’ is powerful

A word that means both more and less than human

What is a person? For one thing, it’s a battlefield. The latest skirmish over the scope of the word, galvanizing some and outraging others, occurred in Mississippi, where a failed amendment to the state constitution would have granted legal personhood to fertilized eggs.

At the same time, some--say, many of those occupying Wall Street--are dismayed that corporations are considered persons in a legal sense. Animal advocates argue for the personhood of animals, especially the most intelligent animals, such as dolphins and chimpanzees. Scholars such as Christopher D. Seps claim that pets should be treated as persons, at least in certain legal situations. There are more than 7 billion humans in the world, but a lot more potential persons.


Why so much controversy over a word? Why have some found it vitally important to extend person to include not-exactly-human things, while others find it grotesque and overreaching? Partly it’s because we think of person as meaning human. But the word isn’t that simple: There’s a long history of person being used in other ways, including definitions that mean both less and more than being a member of the human race.

Person has led a double life in English since the early 1200s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning both a human and a type of role, especially the theatrical kind. This theatricality goes all the way to the word’s roots, in the Latin persona--a type of mask used by an actor. (That word, too, survives in English, meaning an alias, disguise, or character.) The etymological origins of personhood, then, are all about the mask, not about who’s wearing it.

From the beginning, personhood was flexible and adaptable. The idea that corporations have some of the rights of persons, for example, is centuries old. As William S. Laufer has written in “Corporate Bodies and Guilty Minds: The Failure of Corporate Criminal Liability,” the seeds of corporate personhood were sown in the 1300s under King Edward III, when corporations attained some property rights. This example from the Common Laws of England in 1765 lays out the distinction that still vexes us: “Natural persons are such as the God of nature formed us; artificial are such as are created and devised by human laws for the purposes of society and government; which are called corporations or bodies politic.” Then as now, corporate personhood granted a business privileges while sparing the members from blame.


Older idioms such as “put on a person” highlight the artificiality of personhood, as in this example from 1653: “No man can long put on a person and act a part, but his evill manners will peep through the corners of the white robe.” Many uses of person still carry this sense of role playing. It’s no accident that giving an inanimate object human characteristics is called personification, not humanification.

On the other hand, since at least 1390, person has been used to mean someone’s physical self or body, a meaning still evident in phrases such as “in person” and “concealed on his person.” Sometimes this sense is narrowed to mean genitals, especially the male variety, producing some amusingly euphemistic statements such as this prohibition from the British Vagrancy Act of 1824: “Every Person wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his Person in any Street or in any place of public Resort, with intent to insult any Female, shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond.”


Even as these lighter sides of person live on, the word carries another, more serious meaning: “an individual regarded as having human rights, dignity, or worth,” to quote the OED. Personhood, then, means a corporation can claim the right of free speech--in the form of campaign contributions. Animal-rights advocates want animals to have personhood so they will be treated as worthy, dignified beings who deserve protection from poaching, experimentation, and other harms. The quest for personhood is the quest for rights.

So when a group is fighting for acceptance, person becomes a crucial and useful term. During the height of the feminist movement, women used it to claim a better role in society, as seen in this 1970 usage in the OED: “Women are at last becoming persons first and wives second.”

Given that personhood confers such power and security, it’s no wonder that advocates seek to extend the label to the corporations, pets, primates, and fertilized eggs we want to shelter. But since America hasn’t always recognized the rights of certain classes of genuine human beings, it’s understandable that many would be alarmed by the extension of personhood to corporations, poodles, or embryos. These attempts can seem outright demeaning, as in the case of a recent suggestion by PETA that the slavery-abolishing 13th amendment should apply to killer whales at SeaWorld.

Still, it’s possible that our current struggles over the meaning of person will seem tame compared to what lies ahead. Since the beginning of the field of robotics, scientists have wondered if a robot will ever achieve enough autonomy to be considered a person. If we ever encounter an alien race, they sure won’t be humans, but they’ll probably be persons. Is a human clone a person? Personally, I would think so; I bet many won’t agree. But then, arguing over who’s a person and who’s not may be part of what makes us human.


Mark Peters (@wordlust) is a language columnist for Visual Thesaurus and creator of The Rosa Parks of Blogs (http://rosaparksofblogs.blogspot.com/).