Ask An Editor: What is a 'human resource?'
In which a professional book editor teaches English as a Second Language students the history of this corporate-loved idiom
I was blessed to receive my COVID vaccination earlier in 2021 than many others, thanks to a selfless act by a friend; so to pay them back karmically, I'm doing volunteer work in English editing in various places all over the internet this year. One place is the subreddit English Learning, in which befuddled ESL students around the world post questions that no one else can seem to answer for them, many involving odd phrases, idioms, and other bizarre corners of English grammar and usage. I find many of them so interesting, I decided to start reposting them here to my blog. Note, however, that many other people usually reply to these questions as well, and that I'm only sharing my own answer since I have no one else's permission to do so. See my main index page for the full list.
On April 16th, 2021, redditor atheistvegeta asked:
I am confused about a word called “Human resource”. Is it a collective noun referring to all employees, or does it refer to an individual?
The common thought is that it started with the new “touchy feely” period of corporate America in the 1970s, when the department in charge of hiring and firing people started declaring the trendy catchphrase, “Humans are our company's greatest resource.” So the very first reference was actually singular.
What quickly happened was that these departments in charge of hiring and firing started adopting this phrase as the new name of their department. Now that they were dealing with lots and lots of humans, it became the “Department of Human Resources.” But be aware that in practical terms, that's the same thing as saying “Department of Hiring and Firing.”
Yes, yes, angry redditors, I know, it now means more than this! As the '70s grew into the '80s and then '90s, these “HR” departments began growing their roles in most organizations. They still hire and fire, but they also have a more direct hand in administering and helping with health plans, unemployment plans, and other social programs; conducting seminars and other teaching moments; serve as crisis resolution managers; and more.
At the very last corporate job I ever worked in my life, now exactly 20 years ago, the HR director actually served as a mentor of sorts on top of all the other duties I've already listed. She taught me how to properly negotiate salary for the next time I would have to do it, for example. She also actively taught me the ins and outs of the complicated healthcare system that rules this country with an iron fist.
Hmm, maybe humans ARE our greatest resources after all! No, wait, screw that, I'm not some battery like out of the freaking Matrix or something.
 I must confess that when I Google the origin of the phrase “humans are our greatest resource,” no great result comes up. Is this a case of America collectively dreaming up that this became a common saying back among '70s proto-HR departments? Are we in Berenstein Bears territory here? Are we witnessing another Shazaam?
 For those here currently studying the subject, grammatically known as “the Mandela Effect.”
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