The Grammarphobia Blog

Soul searching

Q: In following the story of the missing Malaysian airliner, I’ve noticed that a lot of articles refer to the 239 “souls” aboard. I only hear this usage in the context of tragedies. Is there a reason for it, besides trying to not be repetitive by saying “people” over and over?

A: Your question reminded Pat of a vivid image from her past, back when she was an editor at the Des Moines Register in the late 1970s.

Like many other newspapers, the Register devoted a corridor in its headquarters to a display of famous front pages.

One was dated April 16, 1912, and it carried a headline that Pat remembers to this day: MIGHTY TITANIC, HIT BY ICEBERG, GOES DOWN WITH 1200 SOULS.

If the headline had used “people” instead, would she remember it today? Probably not. The use of “souls” was what made it so unforgettable. (In fact, the losses were even worse than first reported; more than 1,500 people died.)

It’s true, as you say, that the use of “souls” in this sense is more likely to occur in chronicles of extraordinary human loss.

Many news organizations used “souls” in reporting on the Malaysian Airlines disaster. For example, this headline appeared in the Australian, a newspaper based in New South Wales:

“Terrorism fears as plane vanishes with 239 souls.”

And a great many articles around the word referred to the “239 souls on board.”

Why “souls” instead of “people” or “persons”? In our opinion, the use of a poetic image helps to acknowledge the humanity behind the numbers.

But the word “soul” wasn’t always as poetic as it seems to us today. In Old English, “soul” had a much wider range of meanings, including some that were quite down to earth.

One’s “soul” could refer to many different levels of existence: the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and the moral, as well as the spiritual.

The word, which came from old Germanic sources, has three very broad meanings in English, all of them around a thousand years old.

(1) An animating force or principle necessary for existence; this is what gives life to a body and dies with it. 

(2) A spirit that lives on after death (this category includes the religious meanings).

(3) A person or individual.

You might say that in #1, the soul inhabits the living body; in #2 the soul is separate from the body; and in #3 the soul is the body.

The last meaning is the one we’re seeing in those news stories. The Oxford English Dictionary says that in the physical sense, “soul” means a person, an individual, or a living thing.

And as the OED says, this meaning is still current today, as when “soul” is “applied to the number of people on board a ship or other large vehicle.”

The dictionary gives examples ranging from Old English to the present, but we’ll provide just a handful of the citations:

“Erthe and soulis that thereon dwelle.” (From Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules, circa 1381.)

“All maner of soules yt crepe vpon earth.” (From the Coverdale Bible of 1535.)

“Below the middle part, there was but one body, and aboue the middle there was two liuing soules, each one separated from another.” (A description of an “unnaturall Childe,” from William Lithgow’s 1614 memoir of his travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa.) 

“There were about three hundred souls on board.” (From Lord Wolseley’s The Life of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to the Accession of Queen Anne, 1894.)

“In Woodilee there was signing of the Covenant by every soul that could make a scart with a pen.” (From John Buchan’s novel Witch Wood, 1927. A “scart” is a scratch or mark.)

“Some immense airliner with hundreds of souls on board.” (From the Times of London, 1983.)

“In the early days … the Jewish community in Buenos Aires comprised just fifteen hundred souls.” (From Isabel Vincent’s book Bodies and Souls, 2005.)

We also use “soul” to mean a person when we say things like “not a soul was around” or “don’t tell a soul.” This has been common usage since the 16th century, the OED says.  

Similarly, a “soul” means a living person in expressions like “poor soul,” “honest soul,” “dull old soul,” and so on.

This construction—“soul” appearing with an adjective to mean a person having that character or quality—was first recorded in the late 15th century, the OED says.

Despite all these long-established uses of “soul” to mean a person, its use in news stories about loss of life does strike some people as odd.

We’ve found dozens of questions in online forums from people who apparently think a “soul” is one thing and a person is entirely another.

But there’s no conflict here. The Latin noun for “soul,” anima, has a similar range of meanings, as the OED points out.

Cassell’s Latin Dictionary translates anima as meaning “the breath of life, the vital principle, soul (anima, physical; animus, spiritual).”

And Cassell’s adds that anima is “also used in other senses of the English ‘soul,’ ” namely “as a living being” and “as the rational soul.”

Each of the three broad meanings of “soul” we mentioned above can be broken down into many more specific senses, and these sometimes blur the division between the physical and spiritual.

For example, since early Old English, the #1 sense (the animating force of life) has included notions of the “soul” as the seat of consciousness, intelligence, character, one’s nature, even “the central or inmost part of a person’s being,” in the words of the OED.

These are all inherent in the living person, of course, but they’re sometimes contrasted with life’s purely physical side and spoken of in spiritual terms.

The #1 sense of “soul” includes a contemporary usage that isn’t as new as you might think. In fact, it dates back to Shakespeare’s time.

This is the sense of the word we often find in reference to artistry, aesthetic qualities, deep feelings, intellectual power, and the like (as in “Billie sings with a lot of soul”).

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from Othello (written around 1603): “Those fellowes haue some soule.”

Closer to our own time is this OED citation from Henry T. Finck’s book Grieg and His Music (1906):

“He put into his playing so much soul, so much emotional intensity, that he came back into the artists’ room completely exhausted.”

As we all know, this use of the term became identified with African-American culture in the mid-20th century.

The OED has this early example from a 1946 issue of Ebony magazine: “He uses a bewildering, unorthodox technique and his playing is full of what jazzmen refer to as ‘soul.’ ” 

We mentioned above that “soul” came from Germanic sources, but we didn’t say how it got its meaning. Apparently there’s some uncertainty here.

In the late 19th century a German etymologist, Friedrich Kluge, suggested the source of “soul” was a Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as saiwalo, which meant coming from or belonging to the sea.

The rationale, as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains, is that the sea “was supposed to be the stopping-off place of the soul before birth and after death.”

The OED is doubtful, however, saying “the evidential basis for this is extremely slender.”

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