The Grammarphobia Blog

Body English

Q: Why do people say “dead body” instead of just “body”? In a news story about a murder, one would assume that the body found in the woods or in the water was dead.

A: Yes, one would assume that a body found floating in the water was dead. And yes, in many cases it’s unnecessary or redundant to add the adjective “dead” to the noun “body.”

But we might want to add “dead” as an intensifier to emphasize the deadness of the body. And of course “body” doesn’t always refer to a corpse. In fact, the word was around for hundreds of years before it came to mean a dead body.

When the word first showed up in early Old English (spelled bodæi or bodeg), it referred to the “complete physical form of a person or animal,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a translation of Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a church history written in the 8th century by the English monk Bede.

That original sense of “body” is still one of the major meanings of the word. It wasn’t until the 13th century, according to Oxford, that “body” took on the meaning of a corpse.

In fact, the OED says the “corpse” sense of the word “perhaps originally” was “a euphemistic shortening of ‘dead body.’ ” And the dictionary has 115 written examples of the phrase “dead body” used over the last five centuries.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the early etymological history of the word “body” is surprisingly sketchy.

“For a word so central to people’s perception of themselves, body is remarkably isolated linguistically,” Atyo writes.

With the exception of a connection with an Old High German term, “it is without relatives in any other Indo-European language.”

“Attempts have been made, not altogether convincingly, to link it with words for ‘container’ or ‘barrel,’ ” he adds.

All this talk about bodies reminds us of these lines from Robert Burns’s poem “Comin Thro’ the Rye”:

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

(“Gin” means “if” in Scots and dialectal English.)

And of course there’s J. D. Salinger’s version in Catcher in the Rye, where Phoebe corrects Holden for thinking it’s “catch a body.”

“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said.

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