Homosexuals and Homo Sapiens:A Formal Confusion
By Phil Baldi, Pennsylvania State University
Well, here's a pair of terms that are sure to be confusing to a lot of people, namely the "homo" of "homosexual" and the "homo" of "homo sapiens". The word "homosexual" of course means 'someone who shows feelings for someone of the same sex'. It is first attested with this meaning in English around the turn of the century. It is coined from two classical roots: the Greek form "homo-", which is an adjective meaning 'same', found also in forms such as homogeneous and homonym, and the Latin root "sexus", which means 'male or female sex, gender'. So, homo-sexual literally means 'of the same sex or gender'. In principle, the term "homosexual" is indifferent to gender (that is, you can have male and female homosexuals), though current usage seems to favor members of the masculine gender. The "homo-" part of "homosexual" can be used alone as "homo", a derogatory shortening of the full form "homosexual" which has been in use since the 1920's.
So here's where it gets interesting...the "homo" of "homo sapiens" is a Latin word meaning 'human being, man' (in the general sense), recoverable in English "homicide" and "hominid". "Sapiens" is a Latin word meaning 'wise' or 'knowing'. The "homo" of "homo sapiens" has absolutely no connection historically with the "homo-" of homosexual (in fact, the Latin form "homo" is ultimately related to the word "humus" earth, so that a "homo" to the Romans was a kind of 'earthling'). A "homo sapiens" is a "wise human", that is, modern man, while a homosexual is someone who has feelings for members of the same sex. But the two words seem to be linked for many people, who don't distinguish between the two distinct (Greek and Latin) classical traditions. This may explain why the derogatory word "homo" is generally applied to males and not to females, since "male" seems to be the normal interpretation attached to "man", and why the term "homophobe" seems to mean 'fear of homosexuals' for some people, but 'fear of humans' for others. But in historical, etymological reality, the two "homos" have no connection whatsoever.