Know Your Words · Word Wednesday

Not This Crude Matter

George_Stubbs_-_A_Comparative_Anatomical_Exposition_of_the_Structure_of_the_Human_Body_with_That_of_a_Tiger_and_a_Co..._-_Google_Art_ProjectAbout a month ago, while doing something stupid, I damaged a ligament in my left shoulder and tore my bicep. It was a serious injury and, although I didn’t have to have surgery, I’ve been dealing with the fallout from this accident ever since. In doing so, it’s made me think about Yoda’s famous claim that we are “luminous beings, not this crude matter.” I agree with him (he’s a 900 year-old Jedi master after all), but there’s no getting around the fact that the flesh is something with which we must deal each and every day. But what is this thing we refer to as our flesh? Our skin and cartilage? Our ligaments, muscles, and tendons? All of it combined except our bones? And where does the word come from, given it’s so different from the other words —¬†body, guts, innards, etc. — we use to refer to our crude matter? Let’s find out! Welcome to Word Wednesday.

Leaving aside the “soft, pulpy substance of fruit or a plant,” or the “muscular tissue, or tissues generally of animals, regarded as an article of food,” Flesh, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “soft substance, especially the muscular parts of an animal body; that which covers the framework of the bones and is enclosed by the skin.”

The Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (Dorset and Barber) and Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language say the same … and by that I mean, exactly the same, even the part about the fruit. (See the Kory Stamper’s Word By Word for more on plagiarism in dictionaries.) Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers similar verbiage as well, but adds that the word is typically reserved the … um … flesh of vertebrates, and that it is distinguished from “internal organs, bone, and integument (aka: something that covers or envelopes, such as skin). Even the medical dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves offer the same definition.

There seems to be similar consensus regarding the word’s etymology, too. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says flesh comes from the Old English word flaesc, which is Germanic in origin and related to Dutch vlees and German fleisch. The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) agrees, but adds a little more color, noting that, “The etymological notion underlying flesh, and its near relative flitch ‘side of bacon’ [Old English], is of ‘slitting open and cutting up an animal’s carcase for food.'”

Expression_of_the_Emotions_Figure_1The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology hits these same notes, but calls into question the part about bacon by noting, “(modern) German fleisch … is possibly related to Old Icelandic flesk, swine’s flesh (bacon), through Old English flaec, though this form is considered an inaccurate or dialectical spelling by the [Oxford English Dictionary].” Partridge’s Origins offers a different take on the swine thing and says flesk is an Old Norse word for bacon AND pork, but the author provides himself an out by adding the abbreviation “o.o.o.,” meaning “of obscure origin,” at the end of the entry.

Okay, so now that we’re all up to speed on the meaning and etymology of flesh, you can go ahead and forget it because, in the words of the master, you’re not that crude matter.

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Postscript:

Although all my dictionaries seemed to be in agreement about the definition of flesh, Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (1940), includes information about the colors one might encounter while examining the flesh of food animals. I thought you might get a kick out of it … or maybe find it useful … so I’ve included it here.

Yellow: May be produced by food. In disease due to biliary compounds.
Brown: Rare, except in old meat undergoing decomposition.
Dark Purple: May indicate animal has died a natural death, suffered from acute
fever, tuberculosis, or rinderpest. Avoid.
Dark Reddish-Brown: May indicate animal has been hunted or overdriven,
poisoned, drowned, or suffocated. Avoid.
Scarlett: Rare. Indicates arsenic or monoxide poisoning.
Green or Violet: Indicates the beginning of putrefaction. Dangerous.
Saffron: Indicates artificial coloring or smoked pork.
Brilliant Red: Due to poisonous bacteria.
White: Rare, except in calves. Found in certain diseases. Avoid.

This shit could save your life. You’re welcome.

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