1580s, "student of the classical humanities," from Middle French humaniste (16c.), formed on model of Italian umanista "student of human affairs or human nature," coined by Italian poet Lodovicio Ariosto (1474-1533), from Latin humanus "human" (see human; also cf. humanism). Philosophical sense is from 1903.
In the Renaissance, a scholar who studied the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome; today, a scholar of the humanities. The term secular humanist is applied to someone who concentrates on human activities and possibilities, usually downplaying or denying the importance of God and a life after death.