Thursday, October 10, 2013

Of the Earth

Of the Earth

Last week’s post had to do with the words human & humane, which originated in the Latin word humus, meaning of the earth. It’s reasonable to expect Mother Earth to be pretty darned good at giving birth, and in that regard, humus doesn’t let us down.

In the early 1400s the Latin word humare (a verb form of humus meaning to bury), linked with the prefix ex- made its way into English as exhume, meaning to unearth. I’ll leave it to the sociologists to explain why modern usage continues to embrace the grisly word exhume, but has - for the most part -forgotten the kinder, gentler term, inhume, to put into the ground (which entered English two centuries later).

Though Genesis 1 couldn’t possibly lead to this, it’s no surprise – given the Genesis 2 telling of creation – that the Hebrew equivalent of humus, adamu, became the name Adam. Humus & adamu admittedly aren’t cognates, but they both mean of the earth, & both have many offspring.

Camomile entered English in the late 1300s through French & Latin, originating in Greek chamaimelon, which has its roots in humus & means apple of the earth.

Also from humus, chameleon came to English in the mid-1300s, through French & Latin, originating in the Greek term khamaileon, meaning lion of the earth, which most likely comes from a species of chameleon whose crest resembled a lion’s mane.

Another Latin offspring of humus was the word humilis, meaning lowly or humble, giving us images of the lowly folk prostrating themselves before the mighty, literally on the ground. In the 1300s, humilis gave us the English words humble & humility. By the 1530s, these words gave birth to the noun humiliation, which in turn, gave us the verb, humiliate.

Good readers, please comment on all of this humus-ness, or possibly on Oscar Levant’s commentary on humility:

“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, The Quotation’s Page, Wordnik, & Etymonline.


  1. More amazingness! Who knew that a chameleon was a lion with humility?

    What a hilarious quote. I think I've heard it attributed to Oscar Wilde. But then, everything has been. One Oscar or the other. I love this Dorothy Parker verse:
    "If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.”

  2. Love that quote, too. This made me realize that humility, humiliation and humiliating are solely human traits. Yea us.

  3. Hi Anne & Christine,
    Yes, we humans do seem to have cornered the market on humiliation et. al. And Thanks, Anne, for the Parker quote. Her humor is so wonderfully vicious -- as are Levant's & Wilde's, whether we know which one said it or not.

  4. Chameleon and chamomile...I never would have guessed. I suppose when you're sick, it's humiliating to resort to chamomile. But then, I've never cared for that particular tea.

    Oscars! I love all of the quotes, especially Parker's verse!

    Experts found the world's humblest man and gave him a medal for his humility. Then they took it away when he tried to wear it.

  5. Ahoy Rachel6,
    Ha! Another fine thought regarding humility. Thanks for popping by.