When did people become “souls”?

July 18, 2014 • 7:25 am

While listening to NBC News report last night on the crash of another Malaysian Airlines plane—this time caused by a missile strike—I noticed that newscaster Brian Williams said that the plane went down and “all 295 souls were lost.”  He used the word “souls” to refer to people at least twice more in the one-hour broadcast.

This is what’s known as a synecdoche: the use of a part to stand for a whole, as when a cowboy refers to 50 “head” of cattle. It can also be the reverse, with the whole standing for a part, as when someone says, “Let’s get out of here: the police have arrived.” (The police as an institution is used here to stand for individual members of the force.)

In Williams’ reporting, “soul” was meant to refer to “people.” But of course we know that souls are not part of people, because we don’t have souls. It seems, in fact, to be an unwitting sop to religion. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said that she’d heard the same usage in several other places, and that it was becoming more common.

This is, of course, not a big deal in our struggle against religion’s hegemony, but I thought it was interesting.  Why can’t they just say “people”? You never see “souls” used as a synonym for “people” in newspapers, for instance.

116 thoughts on “When did people become “souls”?

  1. This is airman jargon. (In fact, why are they called airman?) When declaring an emergency, you always report the number of souls aboard. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayday:

    Civilian aircraft making a Mayday call in United States airspace are encouraged to use the following format (omitting any portions as necessary for expediency or where they are irrelevant):

    Mayday, Mayday, Mayday; (Name of station addressed); Aircraft call sign and type; Nature of emergency; Weather; Pilot’s intentions and/or requests; Present position and heading, or if lost then last known position and heading and time when aircraft was at that position; Altitude or Flight level; Fuel remaining in minutes; Number of souls on board; Any other useful information

    1. It seems, in fact, to be an unwitting sop to religion.

      Unwitting, yes, but it’s still just jargon. As kirkwoll pointed out it’s how you report people on board. I think it’s left over from naval days.

    2. I just finished listening to two different ATC tapes on YouTube. In both of them the controller asked for the number of souls on board and the amount of fuel. Curiously, in the first case, the answer was in pounds of fuel and in the second, the controller requested it in lbs. after the pilot gave it in minutes.

      1. IIRC from my private piloting days you always had to allow so many minutes of fuel spare so that must be what the minutes reference was in the second ATC exchange.
        I think the minutes was how long you could keep flying at the standard cruising speed so you knew which airports could be reached if you couldn’t land at your original destination.

        1. I agree with John Frum on the what/why of “minutes” used in communication between aircraft pilots and ground control. It is information absolutely necessary for recalculating alternative destinations or course/speed deviations to (e.g.) avoid unforeseen weather conditions, or perhaps areas where civilian passenger liners moments earlier were downed by surface-to-air missiles.

  2. I think people say “souls” instead of “people” because they think this makes the situation more somber.

    Yes. A sop to faith. Even a sappy sop.

  3. It isn’t even an internally coherent thing to say. After all, if people really did have souls waiting to go to heaven, then they aren’t lost. They’ve just gone home.

  4. I noticed the same expression too used on Sky News in Australia. What struck me was that they said “souls were lost”. If using the word souls is a sop to religion, then to say they were lost is counter to most religious beliefs. Surely the souls would have survived, but the physical bodies were what was lost. The same applies to the use of SOS when in danger. Again, surely if one were a believer, then others can never save your soul, just you yourself. It is your life they can save. Not wanting to make light of the terrible tragedy earlier today and my sympathies go out to all effected.

    1. Is the SOS signal unwittingly the cause of this? It was thought up early in the twentieth century because it was very distinctive in Morse code: … — …

      Someone then decided that it “ought” to stand for something and dreamed up “Save Our Souls” which, as already pointed out, is silly. Does anyone know whether the use of “souls” in this sense goes back before 1900?

      1. Haven’t read all posts, so apologies if this has come up. This usage is OLD, and I, personally, have no more problems with it than I have in describing the music I love from the 60s as soul… especially when James Brown shouts, “I’ve got soul and I’m super bad”.

        The question came up a year ago on an English usage site and a person did some OED research and stated:

        “The earliest citation in this general sense of counting human beings was in Old English c1180 (Ælfric · Old English Hexateuch):

        “Syxti & seofontene saulen..of Lamech” (“Sixty and seventeen souls of Lamech”)

        Earliest nautical sense is 1390 (Castle of Love (Vernon)):

        “But eiȝte soulen, þat weren iȝemed In þe schup.” (“But eight souls, that were gomed [manned] in the ship.”)”

          1. “Souls” has such a dramatic ring to it; “people” or “victims” or passengers and crew” are so mundane. Williams (or whoever writes his copy) trying for a sentimental hook?

    2. Stephen:

      Exactly. Those souls have all died in the plane crash. I also noticed Brian Williams’s use in Nightly News.
      Which shows that the new linguistic connotation, spontaneously emerging in the mind through memory association, is really with “people”, and is not perceived as religious.

      It is us, modern Americans, with a sensitive skin, who jump on the use of “souls” as an implicit renewed affirmation of Christian dogmas.

      My guess, which could be confirmed or infirmed by a search, is that the use of the word goes back to medieval times, when most villages were controlled by the local Catholic priest, and the size of the village was counted as the number of “souls”. The loss of “souls” or increase of “souls” determined the size of the local population.
      The use of “souls” became secularized, with a new connotation not directly associated with Catholic dogma
      “Oh you, poor soul, ” she said, “you’ve lost your cat?”

      1. Politically, he may also have been trying to shift focus away from the speculation about the possibility of Americans on board.

        1. Speaking of evasions, there is a standard reluctance to face death out there, and euphemisms are the order of the day. It might seem to Williams that say “souls are lost” helps avoid the mental imagery of all those physical people slamming into the earth at high speed.

  5. I noticed that too–my sense was that he was poetically adopting antique nautical terminology (when counting numbers of souls lost in shipwrecks was common in newspapers).

      1. Certainly that is a good point, and transfer to aeroplanes from nautical terminology is normal. But I think the term should be marooned…

    1. While I suspect it was originally adopted from nautical terminology, it is certainly aviation terminology in common use. For example: I served on the flightline in the UASF, and emergencies were occaisonally announced over the radio. One piece of information given was always how many were aboard the aircraft in question, e.g. “2 souls aboard”. I certainly agree that the media is too accepting of religious ideas, but I don’t think that’s what happened here.

      1. Yep, it’s a term commonly used in aviation (having spent 20+ years in active duty military service as an Air Force aviator).

        When we had in-flight emergencies, one of the standard things that we had to report to the command post was the “number of souls on board.”

        For humor, I would occassionally ask would the number of souls on board be different if I sold mine to Satan.

        The “souls on board” usage is aviation slang that originally came from the nautical world. It’s no surpise that the general media is picking it up.

        I still work for an Air Force flying squadron as a civilian employee and I just checked the in-flight guide checklist form that our folks use to report their in-flight emergencies.

        The current checklist page ask for the aircrews to report the number of personnel on board the jet.

        However, I still here folks saying “5 souls on board” instead of “5 crewmembers on board” when calling in an IFE. The language used here is an old habit and it may be a while before it goes away.

        1. So the usage of ‘souls’ will disappear when the souls of those souls still saying it ‘are lost’.
          I’ll get my coat…..

    2. I noticed as well, and assumed it was an anachronism. However, when I googled newspaper headlines of the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania I didn’t see a single one that used the word “souls”. Most headlines said “X lives lost” or “X dead”.

    3. I found only this regarding etymology of “souls” as terminology for crew/passengers of naval vessels and aircraft:


      If the term was adopted from theist meaning, that meaning never occurred to me during my naval/Air Force service when it was employed. I don’t recall anyone else in either brancb referring to it in any way that suggested anything other than people no longer alive, either.

      I agree with Diane G.’s comment elsewhere on this thread that the best outcome is co-option of religious terminology into secular meaning via usage over time and experience. I think the usage in this instance is an example of an adaptation well along in its process.

      First planetery aviation cribbed off Earth’s maritime experience. Then came Gene Roddenberry:

      In the nautical tradition of Earth, the various service organizations throughout the galaxy engage in the usage of nautical terms to apply traditional sea-going references to modern starship operations.


      1. Interesting links–I especially liked the last one, for its comprehensive lists. But this quote from the first is fun:

        “By the way, in aviation it seems the phrase is sometimes abbreviated as “S.O.B”, much to the delight of some pilots, especially when pluralized: “We’ve got 40 SOBs here. And two pilots.””

        Way before the internet, there was an editor of Free Inquiry who believed freethinkers should expunge all religio-speak from their vocabularies, and wrote accordingly. I remember some sentences that were just so awkward & convoluted; not to mention that they immediately called to mind exactly the word or phrase he was trying to avoid. Religion has of course contributed to language, but as with other sources of input, many of its contributions have devolved into strictly idiom, and I think the process is continuing.

  6. One reason souls is used in aviation is to distinguish live passengers from dead bodies when filing a flight plan. In case you are transporting remains in the cargo bay. Don’t want to double count them if they are already dead when investigating the crash site.

  7. David Eller in his book Atheism Advanced discusses the ways in which words associated with religious belief have infiltrated our language. He believes we should remove them.

    1. I disagree; I think that’s a losing battle. We should instead let them become essentially secular, through usage, as is often the case.

    2. But some of the most invigorating swear words to say have religious connotations. I just don’t think an outburst would have the right ring to it if I yelled “flying spaghetti monster damn it, pasta almighty!”

  8. There is a story about an Anglican clergyman, very fond of fishing, who was happy to finally be assigned to a seaside parish. He ran into another clergyman in London, who was asking about the new assignment.
    “Do you have many souls in your new parish,” the friend asked.
    “Alas, no,” replied the fishing parson. “Mostly plaice.”

  9. SOS. It’s kind of strange because for a religious believer the soul will be fine either way, unless they were sinful and unrepentant. It’s the flesh and blood that is in need of saving in these situations.

  10. Working ships go down with all hands, but passengers have no function on board except paying their way. As they’re only filling seats, the natural synecdochic term for them would be ‘bums’ (UK/Aussie) or ‘asses’ (US). That would probably seem insensitive, though.

    There were at least 28 Australians on MH17 and a number of Oz-residents of other nationalities, so it’s a very big story here. Seems to be a case of mistaken identity, Russian-backed rebels have been shooting down Ukrainian military planes and presumed this was another one of those until they found the bodies. You’ve got to wonder why it seemed a reasonable idea for a commercial airline to fly over a warzone where rockets were known to be in use. An insurer would probably see that as reckless.

      1. “Air safety experts have criticised Malaysia Airlines for flying over Ukraine airspace but the company maintains that the flight path was deemed safe to travel by civil aviation authorities.

        The plane was traveling 1,000ft above the no-fly zone. Other airlines have said they either began avoiding the airspace above the troubled region several months ago, or have now joined Malaysia Airlines in diverting all aircraft away from it.

        Many airlines avoided Ukraine immediately after the crash, as the flight data map shows below, and Ukraine on Friday closed airspace over the east of the country.”


        1. Yes, this was normal, high-flight-level airspace and no one (before the shoot-down) would have suspected any trouble.

          Just goes to show you how crazy those Russian separatists are. Way outside the bounds of normal behavior.

          1. ….and unskilled in using their weapons. As I told people I work with, these guys aren’t exactly a real army – they aren’t really fighting according to the Geneva Convention.

              1. I don’t think they got learned very well. I suspect all the leaders are talking about how they are going to tell us all what went down and what is going to happen about it.

  11. I think that “souls” has been used for a long time in both aviation and … what’s the fancy word for ships (nautics) … nautical times? Not to be confused with SOS though (which I read was chosen for its simplicity, not meaning). I found some interesting answers through google, mostly focusing on the difference between passengers and crew. There’s also one stating souls was used in the 13th century already to denote people; maybe it’s just something that stuck, not specifically a sop to religion.

    Google links found:

      1. At one time it would have been “shipping,” but since other forms of transportation co-opted so many nautical terms, that’s no longer precise enough. (We ship air cargo to air ports,, etc.)

    1. It’s definitely still used in aviation. When Jerry flies to Poland, dispatchers and air traffic controllers will record the flight number, aircraft type, destination, and “number of souls on board” which includes passengers and crew.
      I think this must be borrowed from naval tradition. I learned about it when I worked part time as a wildland fire dispatcher, and at first I thought it sounded archaic and a bit creepy. But not as creepy as the word used to describe a fatal crash, which is “mishap”.

      1. Yes, almost everything in aviation was adapted or borrowed from nautical precedents.

        For example: Hull loss accident (plane destroyed beyond repair).

        Phrase used for pilot error crash: “Controlled flight into terrain”.

    2. Yes, see also the Wikipedia entry for Mayday (a corruption of the French m’aide, help me). Unclear why this technical usage needs to be carried over into news reports; it hasn’t been on any news reports here in Canada that I’ve heard.

  12. There’s an interesting description of the history of “soul” under the Wikipedia subject “Soul in the Bible” describing the origin. Apparently it originally didn’t have a numinous connotation:

    Soul in the Bible

    “Accordingly, the Hebrew word nephesh, although translated as “soul” in some older English Bibles, actually has a meaning closer to “living being”


    1. Not read it but there is Weighing the Soul by Len Fisher on the ‘evolution of scientific beliefs’.

    2. Random House’s 5th out of 13 definitions of soul is “a human being” as is the 10th of 12 definitions in Wold English Dictionary.

      To answer Jerry’s final question, according to Online Etymology dictionary “As a synonym for “person, individual” (e.g. every living soul) it dates from c.1320.”

  13. I grew up as a culturally Irish Catholic and the term ‘souls’ was used in normal conversation as a synonym with no particular religious connotation for ‘persons’: it had become normalized, desacralized.

    Oh, how I used to love the transgressive anticipation concluding a hymn with the opening minim of the mock Gregorian chant, ‘A-souls’. I was 11.

  14. Even if humans have souls we don’t know how many each person has. Maybe we get an additional soul each year just like a tree gets rings.

  15. It’s a common nautical and aviation term to refer to people on board as “souls”, I don’t think it’s really a sop to religiousness.

  16. According to compound (substance) dualism, human people or persons are unitary wholes composed of a body and a soul, so that I have a soul in the same sense as a human body has a head. My soul is a proper part of me.
    According to pure (substance) dualism, human people or persons do not have souls as proper parts but are (totally identical with) souls. In this case, I am a soul which is (temporarily) connected to and interacts with a body, but the thing I call “my body” is not part of me (as held by compound dualism).
    Even in the academic literature, the distinction between these two forms of substance dualism is often overlooked or blurred.

  17. I was thinking about the usage of “soul” in another context. There is a scene in Firefly where River Tam sees a cow and smiling, says to the cow, “little soul; big world”. It has adds a certain deeper understanding to the sentence. Even though I don’t recognize the existence of the “soul”, it somehow adds that extra je ne sais quois to the interaction. I feel this way somehow with the airline description while at the same time feel it is stupid. It is a perplexing reaction.

    1. My first thought on seeing the photos of that lovely black dog’s last day, was “what soulful eyes.” Music can most def hAve soul ( Billie yes, Celine no) without one’s believing in a soul in the religious sense.

    2. Diana:

      Your perplexing reaction is due to two different uses of language.

      At one level, we use whatever words we know and have habitually used, to express our immediate emotional reactions, spontaneously, nearly automatically, and certainly these words come to our mind from embedded memory associations on which we have no control nor conscious knowledge.
      Hence your “certain deeper understanding”, “understanding” here meaning no more than resonance of other implicit, unsaid, only felt potential word association, all of them coming with strong emotional charge.

      They you stop, and think to yourself: “Hold on. ‘Soul’? What’s that? What do I mean? Am I insinuating that we have those dreadful Christian souls? I know we have no souls. So why on earth do I think so easily about souls, when this story introduces a cow? I am lost. What’s going on? Shouldn’t we banish that word for good? Shouldn’t we clean up the language and remove all traces of magical thinking?”

      All this inner talk is the product of your critical reflexion, coming only AFTER your memory had brought those unconscious association out in the open in your mind. What comes to mind spontaneously is unwanted, unprompted, and is a subconscious process.
      But your examination of your first expressions is the product of your conscious critical mind examining what has been dredged out of memory with such astonishing immediacy.

      You may like or not like your instinctive formulation, or decide, “Cool it, ‘soul’ isn’t such a bad word. I never thought of Catholics and magical spiritual entities, ‘soul’ came out like a flower from the ground. It does give me a “deeper understanding”. What the hell. Man cannot live with bread alone, we need some poetry.”
      And so, after a critical debate, you may accept to use the word.

      The whole cultural debate about linguistic political correctness is conducted along similar lines.

      1. I agree. And I use soul in the more secular usage when I want to convey more meaning, especially when I describe certain work or associations as “soul destroying”. Everyone understands what you mean with that phrase.

  18. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

    My favorite synecdoche from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

    1. I love that line too but then there was Jack Handey that made me think of both in a funny way:

      Anytime I see something screech across a room and latch onto someone’s neck, and the guy screams and tries to get it off, I have to laugh, because what IS that thing?!

  19. The OED traces it back to the 12th century:

    c1180 Notes to Hexateuch (Claud. B.iv) in A. N. Doane & W. P. Stoneman Purloined Lett. (2011) 28 Syxti & seofontene saulen..of Lamech; forfeden [prob. read forðferden] in diluuio.

  20. In aviation, according to FAA rules, we report an emergency to the controller by stating, among other things, the number of “souls on board”. Presumably, this came from the pre-aviation era loss of ships at sea.
    This takes us back before the 20th century, when everyone did have a soul.

  21. As for usage, I am unhappy with the ever commoner use of more+adjective/adverb for the comparative:

    …and that it was becoming more common.

    The …er form can be ugly, and should be avoided in such cases, but it is surely better writing to use it when it is neat.

    1. They kept leaving the church and going to the public library?

      Oh wait, that would be the very opposite of defective…

    1. Presumably lost to the bodies that they once inhabited. Assumes that what you consider ‘you’ is separate from your physical body. It’s called dualism and is a delusion that is fascinatingly near universal amongst humans.

  22. “Souls” is a term used in the airline business and dates back to early shipping days. When putting out an SOS they would include the # of passengers as “souls on board.” I am an atheist who is not bothered by this term, as I live with a flight attendant who pointed this out to me. She likes the term because it alerts you to the humanity on board. I can understand the reaction of non-believers to this religious term. I am not pleased that it probably pleases the Christians who want religious references everywhere, but I like it for historians who are only interested in the history.

  23. I don’t think this is a big deal. “Soul” in this context just means “person”. “Anyone here? Not a soul.”

    Most words have metaphorical origins. No one nowadays thinks “muscle” means “little mouse”, or that “gymnasium” means “place of nakedness”, or that “pornography” means “writings by or about prostitutes”. I don’t think the commentator meant “body with spirit attached”.

  24. My understanding of the term “souls on board” in aviation is to distinguish live persons on board from dead bodies being transported. “Souls on board” is a simple term that unambiguously includes the crew and the (live) passengers, and excludes any dead bodies being transported (usually for burial). The reason this number is important is that, if you crash, search and rescue will know how many potential survivors need to be accounted for.

  25. As a newspaper reporter long ago, we were taught to say “died” rather than “passed away” (or “out” or “on” or “over”). That seems to have been forgotten recently. Perhaps TV presenters can’t bear to be so blunt when talking to us “face to face.”

    Worse, we now hear such grotesque usages as “passed away after a head-on collision”.

    I think the use of “soul” is another attempt to soften and/or spiritualise what has happened.

    There was also a rule against “intruding into private grief” which I greatly miss.

  26. Just to add that, growing up in England in the 1950s and 60s, it was not at all uncommon to hear people (almost all older than me) say “he’s a cute little soul” or “bless his little soul!” in recognition of something outstanding, like speaking intelligibly.

  27. I’m surprised that no-one has mentioned this exchange from a vaudeville routine on “I Love Lucy:”

    Fred: “Did you hear about the fire at the shoe factory?”

    Lucy: “What happened?”

    Fred: “500 soles were lost.”

  28. As others have pointed out above, this usage of “souls” is not new. I was reminded of one particularly prominent example:

    “April 13th, 1834. — The Beagle anchored within the mouth of the Santa Cruz. This river is situated about sixty miles south of Port St. Julian. During the last voyage Captain Stokes proceeded thirty miles up it, but then, from the want of provisions, was obliged to return. Excepting what was discovered at that time, scarcely anything was known about this large river. Captain Fitz Roy now determined to follow its course as far as time would allow. On the 18th three whale-boats started, carrying three weeks’ provisions; and the party consisted of twenty-five souls — a force which would have been sufficient to have defied a host of Indians. With a strong flood-tide and a fine day we made a good run, soon drank some of the fresh water, and were at night nearly above the tidal influence.”

    Darwin, C. R. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition. London: John Murray.

  29. Well actually, the initial Hebrew view of the soul was that it was the whole being, a person, and references to this idea are all over the place in their scriptures (the NT was obviously written after the hellenization, where people started *having* souls rather than being a soul). For instance, according to the Genesis, Adam “became a living soul” – 2:7 (yes, there are also “dead souls” in the OT).

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