The Grammarphobia Blog

A tall individual in a short suit

Q: I’m curious about the word “individual.” I recall reading somewhere in the distant past that it was coined by Dickens as a humorous term for a person. Of course a person is an individual entity. You can’t divide one unless you draw and quarter him or her. Can you shed any light on this?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “individual” first appeared around the year 1425 as an adjective referring to “one in substance or essence; forming an indivisible entity; indivisible.”

The OED says this sense of the word is now considered obscure. It was derived from the medieval Latin word individualis, meaning indivisible or inseparable.

In the17th century, according to the OED, the adjective took on new meanings, including “numerically one, single” and pertaining to “a single person or thing, or some one member of a class.”

This was when the noun form came into being and meant what it does today – a single person or thing.

So Dickens (a 19th-century writer) wasn’t the first one to call a person an individual.

That honor, according to the OED, goes to the Puritan minister John Yates, who wrote in Ibis ad Cæsarem (1626): “The Prophet saith not, God saw euery particular man in his bloud, or had compassion to say to euery Indiuiduall, Thou shalt liue.”

However, Dickens must have liked the term. He used it many, many times. Here are a couple of examples.

Sketches by Boz (1836): “At the lower end of the billiard-table was an individual in an arm-chair, and a wig …”; Great Expectations (1861): “… a murderous-looking tall individual, in a short suit of white linen and a paper cap.”

As you can see, the use of the noun “individual” for a person has history on its side. But many usage guides insist there’s a right way and wrong way to use this noun.

The New York Times stylebook, for instance, says it’s OK to use “individual” to distinguish one person from a group, but it’s stilted to use the term for a person in general.

So, according to the Times, it would be fine to say someone is only one individual in a large company, but stilted to say the company has hired three individuals.

The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage speculates that much of the “tooth-gnashing” over the usage “can be blamed on police-blotter jargon.”

Garner’s generally prefers the more specific terms “man,” “woman,” and “person” over “individual” when the “person” isn’t being singled out from a group.

I agree. Let’s leave this use of “individual” in the squad room.

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