Q: In teaching religion a few years ago, I encountered confusion on the part of my students when explaining the Trinity by using the term “persons.” How did the singular word “people” become the default plural for the singular word “person”?
A: “People” and “person” are entirely different, etymologically unrelated words.
The source of “people” is the Latin populus (the masses, the populace).
The source of “person” is the Latin persona, which originally meant a mask worn by a character in a play and later came to mean a human being or an individual. The Latin word may have been derived from the Etruscan phersu (mask).
My sources here are the Oxford English Dictionary and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
“People” entered English around the late 1200s. In modern usage, it’s usually a plural noun for “humans” and has no corresponding singular that would mean “one human.”
“People” is singular only when it refers to a body or group of humans who share the same culture. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives this example: “As a people the Pueblo were noteworthy for their peacefulness.”
The collective sense of “people” has a corresponding plural, “peoples,” which is now used to mean groups of humans that share a common religion, culture, language, etc.
A different animal entirely is “person,” which entered English in the early 1200s as a singular noun (plural: “persons”). It originally meant either a human being or a role or function assumed by a human.
“Person” has had many meanings over the centuries, and in 1325 it took on a special meaning in Christian theology, one familiar to every English major who has studied John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”
The OED defines this sense of “person” as meaning “each of the three modes of being of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) which together constitute the Trinity.”
Here’s a citation from John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833): “The word Person which we venture to use in speaking of those three distinct and real modes in which it has pleased Almighty God to reveal to us His being.”
Theologians today still use this sense of the word. But unless you’re talking about theology, there’s nothing wrong with using “people” to mean “persons.” In fact, that’s the people’s choice. I wrote a blog item about the subject last year.
“Persons” often sounds stuffy or has the air of a police blotter (“three persons were taken into custody”). “People” seems more natural to most of us, and that probably accounts for the reason it has largely supplanted “persons.”