We use the word life in many—too many—different ways. Its meanings range from its reference to an individual, to daily living, to the quality of being animate that all beings share, all the way to the entirety of all the living things on the planet. Most of the time the word’s ambiguity is harmless. But sometimes philosophic, religious and everyday “deep” discussions can bog down because people, without realizing it, mean different things when they say life. I wish we had separate, specific nouns for two of life’s meanings in particular. We probably won’t come up with them anytime soon, but we can minimize the confusion.
Here are four of the threads in the word’s use. It can refer to: (1) the span from birth to death—his whole life; (2) the activities and experiences of daily existence—this makes my life easier; (3) the state or the characteristics of being animate—there is life in her yet; and (4) living things collectively— the evolution of life.
These meanings easily blur into each other. For example, in the statement I’m happy with my life, is life a reference to life span (1) or to the experience of each day (2) or some combination of both? In Life on earth began 3.8 billion years ago, does the word point to the state, the phenomenon, of being alive (3) or to living things collectively (4)?
This last definition—living things collectively—is one of the meanings that I would find it very helpful to have a separate noun for. Science has shown us the commonalities shared by all living things from bacteria to humans and going back billions of years. I often want to say something about not just animals or plants or microbes but all of them together. But we don’t have a plain word that points only to the totality of living things now and in the past and emphasizes their commonality in being alive or having lived. Our everyday language is behind the times.
Organism is a candidate for such a term but not a strong one. Dating from the 18th century, it can refer to any living thing but its focus is on its structure and systems. (It is related to organization.) As a term that seems to have its place in the laboratory, organism doesn’t work well for broad references to the totality of life. We are unlikely to marvel over “the wonders of the organisms around us”!
Terms that are more user-friendly than organism have other, and interesting, limitations. Beings would seem to fit the bill. It seems broad enough. As a form of the verb to be it calls attention in and of itself to the existence of lives. It gives a touch of spiritual dignity. The trouble is that it refers to humans and occasionally to animals but not at all to plants and microbes. It would be odd to talk about a carrot that is growing in the ground as a being.
The same goes for creature, as in The forest is filled with interesting creatures. Creatures excludes plants and microbes (unless the microbes are moving around under a microscope, in which case we might think of them as tiny animals and call them creatures). The on-line Webster’s dictionary gives a borderline example: “Few living creatures can survive without water.” Plants obviously need water, but I’m doubtful they were to be included in the scope of this sentence. Creatures walk, fly, swim, or slither; they don’t put down roots or bloom. Like beings, creatures is a term from six centuries ago when plants and animals were viewed as separate spheres.
In the absence of satisfactory single words that refer to all living things, we’ve turned to phrases. Graceful combinations include the living world and the world of life. But I find these phrases vague; they don’t refer to living things themselves directly. So I usually stick with living things. It’s clunky, but it points to all things living past and present and nothing but that.
That is one of the two meanings of life that, as I mentioned, I think needs separating out. The other one is sense number 3, “the state of being alive.” We have alive of course as an everyday and yet precise adjective. I wish we had a noun that worked as well.
There is aliveness, which appears in descriptions of art and fashion. It means that something has exuberance and vitality; it’s used to hype a product. It rarely if ever refers just to the state of being alive.
I use livingness. It’s a rare but real word; it’s in the dictionary. It’s bland, and it too is clunky. But it names being alive as a characteristic of a certain set of things effectively enough. I’ll stick with it for now.
It’s generally true that the speakers of a language have the words that they need. So the profusion of meanings of life probably reflects how intertwined in our psyches our sense of being alive is with our awareness of who and what is alive and what happens to them. But it would make our discussions about big topics easier if we could separate out some of those meanings when we wanted to.