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shameless pleading

Autopsy

Well, there you go. Apparently he swallowed a bullet.

Dear Word Detective: I have always wondered about the word “autopsy,” which has a do-it-yourself air that makes no sense to me. Surely “mortopsy” would be more appropriate? — Tracey Martinsen.

Well, it is the age of DIY. I noticed recently that there is now a show, on one of the lesser cable channels, which follows couples renovating their own homes who, interestingly,  know absolutely nothing about construction. So these chuckleheads cheerfully knock down supporting walls (oops!), saw through live wires (zap!) and mess with active gas lines (yow!). They then scream bitter recriminations at each other until the deus ex machina pixies step in and fix everything, which I find terribly unfair. It’s also a real missed opportunity for the network. C’mon, gang. Let nature take its course and you’ve got a perfect lead-in for CSI Home Depot!

Speaking of the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) franchise and similar TV shows focusing on high-tech crime investigation, prosecutors and defense attorneys in real-life criminal trials are apparently increasingly worried about what they call the “CSI effect” on juries. Jurors addicted to the shows either put too such trust in forensic evidence, investing it with almost magical powers, or they expect slam-dunk DNA “proof” in every case and discount more mundane evidence. I’ve never been tempted by a life of crime, but if I were, the prospect of trial by a jury of credulous couch potatoes would give me serious pause.

Autopsies play a large role in CSI and similar shows (which is one reason why I don’t watch them), and you’re right that “autopsy” is itself a strange little word. It first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, drawn from the Greek word “autopsia.” That “autopsia” was a combination of “auto,” meaning “self” and “opsis,” meaning “something seen,” giving the resulting meaning of “personal observation” or “something seen for oneself.” That Greek root “auto,” incidentally, is found in all sorts of English words, from “autonomy” (self-rule) to “automobile” (moves itself, no horse required) and others.

The initial meaning of “autopsy” in English was, as its roots suggest, “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes; personal inspection,” and it was applied to nearly any sort of inspection  (“Or by autopsie, when by our observation, wee get a certaine knowledge of things,” 1651). Within just about a quarter century (1678), however, “autopsy” was being used in its very specific modern sense of “postmortem examination of a cadaver by dissection, usually to determine the cause of death or other pathology.”

Once the “inspect a corpse” sense of “autopsy” gained currency, the more generic “take a good look at something” sense faded away, probably because it became impossible to use that  general sense without invoking unpleasant associations. By the early 19th century, however, “autopsy” had acquired a figurative use, safely distant from the forensic sense, meaning “detailed critical examination of a thing or event, usually after its first presentation or occurrence” (“This autopsy of a fine lady’s poem,” 1879). Interestingly, this use is not very common today in the mass media, and we tend to substitute the term “post-mortem” for “autopsy” in even clearly figurative uses (“Market Madness: A Post-Mortem,” headline, NY Times, 5/7/10).

1 comment to Autopsy

  • Your veterinarian will tell you that only humans get autopsies. Animals get necropsies (which is probably the word your correspondent was groping for, only he got his languages garbled). Something to do with the idea that autopsy means looking at yourself. Even if that isn’t what it originally meant.

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