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Autopsy: Dissecting the Word
Let us begin with the word’s semantic weight. Autopsy has borne three different meanings in its trip through English.
The word’s first meaning in English was very simple: “seeing for oneself,” exactly what its Hellenistic Greek etymon αὐτοψία autopsia signifies: Greek αὐτός autos ‘self’ + Hellenistic Greek –οψία -opsia, a combining form of ancient Greek ὄψις opsis ‘appearance, sight, view, the act of seeing.’ Think of related English words like myopia, optical, optometrist and synopsis.
This English meaning appears as late as a 1901 history textbook in which G.B. Grundy wrote — somewhat redundantly — of an ancient author: “. . .that he is describing from personal autopsy the scenes of the great events which he narrates is overwhelming.” I label the sentence redundant because his words “personal” and “aut-” of autopsy share a meaning that did not have to be expressed twice.
Then, in a second semantic shift, autopsy came to mean close diagnostic examination of a living patient. One must remember the thousands of years when mobs of ignorant religious lunatics, Christian and otherwise, thwarted the advance of scientific knowledge by preventing dissection of any corpse because “God didn’t like it.”
Finally, today, autopsy means medical examination of a corpse and its organs, to discover the cause of death, whether by misadventure or by nature. Sometimes autopsies are conducted to reveal how disease afflicted the human body interiorly and if applied therapies were efficacious. One remembers Leonard L. Levinson’s sly definition of an autopsy as “remains to be seen.”
This third meaning of autopsy arose by early in the 19th century, as scattered clouds of scientific enlightenment scudded over France and Germany — but not without an autopsying doctor or two being burned to death as Satan’s warlocks, with pious Christians standing around the bonfire smirking their approval. Eventually a corpse could be examined and dissected and a new English forensic term was needed and so borrowed from French terms like autopsie cadavérique and autopsie cadavéreuse, which were lying around in medical French for a hundred years before being shipped over to England. The German word Autopsie was in print by 1750 CE.
Autopsy entered English by means of French through a Roman version of the Greek, namely Latin autopsia ‘seeing with one’s own eyes.’ Galen used the Greek word frequently to mean close visual inspection of a patient for diagnostic purposes. The doctor Galen (131-201 CE), like many of the best physicians of the Roman empire, was a Greek who wrote in Greek. His writings summarize ancient anatomy and medical procedure, adding new observations based on his own practice. For fourteen hundred years, Galen’s writings were the authority on medicine in the Christian world.
Related Word Study
Some obsolete synonyms for autopsy are: necropsy, necroscopy, sectio cadaveris, thanatopsy, necrotomy, ptomatopsy, and ptomatopsia.
Nekros is the ancient Greek adjective that meant ‘dead.’ A cemetery or ‘city of the dead’ is a necropolis.
Thanatos θάνατος is the Greek word for death, most commonly seen in the English term, euthanasia ‘inducing a comfortable death.’ Sigmund Freud used the Greek noun by itself to name what he called ‘the death instincts or Thanatos.’
One ancient Greek word for dead body or corpse was πτῶμα πτώματος ptoma, ptomatos ‘fallen body, corpse, carcass’ (stem of the noun from the verb πίπτειν piptein ‘to fall, to drop’). It appears this Greek word for dead body may have referred originally to a soldier who had “fallen” in battle.
Ptomaine, often a cause of food poisoning, was named because the toxic amine was first isolated in decaying animal bodies and in decaying vegetables. Check out the chemical names of some of ptomaine’s fellow amines: cadaverine and putrescine.
There’s a lot of stiff competition in writings about autopsy, but I think we’ve buried most of the contenders.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, detail, oil on canvas, © Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Copyright 2012 © William Gordon Casselman
Reviews of my Book
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Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog "My Corner of the Universe" for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover's Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
"I admit it: I'm a word nerd. I love words: weird words, long words, obscure words, funny words. This book is right up my alley. With chapters like "Nautical Words," "Creepy Words," and "Edible Words," I have enjoyed every page of this book. And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it. My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: "What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names" (19). I'm sure I'll have another favorite sentence in a day or two. This book is just that good and just that entertaining."
Author Bill Casselman replies: "Thanks, Jenni!"
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
A Great New Review of My Latest Book!
October 26, 2011 Welcome to the Enchanted ForestBy WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest,Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
In the best of the spiritual tradition, Bill is the shape-shifter who constantly leads you to all the places you need to find in your soul. Every page is a new country, an invitation to an excursion into the wonderland of rich connections with the myriad of sources of what so often we unthinkingly wield as a prosaic tool.
Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who tells you that this book is anything but pure gold. It’s simply not true, sadly, that all the world loves a lover. Particularly someone whose love is so boundless.
But Sir William is fearless. You don’t earn your keep as a medicine man if you have a thin skin. While I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could walk away from this book unmoved by its wit, its wisdom and the beautiful transparency by which the author celebrates the glorious romp of our almost unlimited linguistic exuberance, I have to sadly conclude that once in a while, you do meet someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, eh?
Read this book. Leave it on the sofa instead of the $%#!*$% TV remote. Maybe someone you care about will pick it up, even just for a moment, and fall in love with their heritage? Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog "Creativity Unlimited" of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
Tags: 365 things to look forward to, books, reading
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one. If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . . Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?"
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my new book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011 Dear Mr. Casselman,
A search for the origins of an improbable-looking word, paraprosdokian, led me to the first piece of your prose I have had the pleasure of reading, "The Bogus Word Paraprosdokian & Lazy Con Artists of Academe." I have just placed an order for Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik, Canadian Words & Sayings, and As The Canoe Tips, and will add more of your titles as I finish these.
I have just retired from a 40-plus year career in book publishing, the last thirty years spent as director/editor of a number of university presses, attempting to sort the genuine writers from the "Lazy Con Artists of Academe." Sad to say, the latter have so over-bred the former that I could no longer see the rare gem in the avalanches of offal that daily swamped my office and desk. I visited your website and spent far too long there; it was a pleasure to meet a real writer through his work.. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman's Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the "profligate prof-lets." During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let's first book, "Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it."
I know I will enjoy your books. Keep up the good work.
University of New Mexico Press, among others
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