The Grammarphobia Blog

The anatomy lesson

Q: Pity us poor old geezers who tend to be purists. The word “dissect,” which I pronounce dih-SECT, keeps getting pronounced as DIE-sect, even by NPR announcers. I suppose it’s the influence of “bisect,” which is properly pronounced BYE-sect. How can we change the world?

A: Language is a living thing, and “dissect” has been changing right along with it. My 50-year-old, unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed.) offers only one pronunciation: dih-SECT.

But contemporary dictionaries are all over the place.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists dih-SECT, die-SECT, and DIE-sect, in that order.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) goes with die-SECT, dih-SECT, and DIE-sect, but it says the last two are less common.

With all those choices, it would be pretty hard to mispronounce “dissect” today.

The word comes from the Latin dissectus, the past participle of the verb dissecare (to cut). Both Latin words begin with a “dih” rather than a “die” sound, so I imagine a Roman would have preferred your pronunciation.

The word first showed up in English in 1607, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a description of chickens “being dissected or cut in pieces when they are warm.”

By 1611 the word was being used in its human anatomical sense, which brings to mind “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” In Rembrandt’s 1632 painting, Dr. Tulp is seen lecturing before the dissection of the corpse of a criminal hanged for armed robbery.

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