The Grammarphobia Blog

Habitus forming

Q: The reference to the “habitus of the gluteus” in your “booty camp” article caught my eye. My girlfriend, a professor of radiology, notes that radiologists must not tell patients they are fat. The politically correct term for obesity is “increased body habitus.” Since none of the radiologists worry about  “decreased body habitus,” the phrase is often shortened to “body habitus.”

A: The expression “increased body habitus” is new to us. In fact, it appears to be a relatively new usage even among radiologists—at least in published writing.

The earliest example of the phrase we’ve found is from a June 20, 2013, opinion in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court.

In ruling that a plaintiff wasn’t seriously injured in a motor-vehicle accident, the court cited “reports of a radiologist who found that the MRIs revealed injuries that were degenerative in nature, consistent with her age and increased body habitus.”

The slimmed-down phrase “body habitus” has been around since the early 1900s, though it usually refers to just a physique or body type, not necessarily an obese physique.

For example, an April 24, 1915, article in the Medical Record, a weekly journal, says life insurance medicine deals with clinically important subjects “such as body habitus in its relationship with heredity.”

The word “habitus” was occasionally used in the late 1800s to mean a bodily condition or constitution, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example from the Jan. 22, 1886, issue of the journal Science: The disposition to the disease—the consumptive habitus.”

The Latin noun habitus (a condition or state) also gave English the more common noun “habit,” which etymologically means “what one has,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As Ayto explains, habitus was originally the past participle of the verb habere, which meant “to have” but came to be used reflexively for “to be.”

The past participle habitus, he says, “came to be used as a noun for ‘how one is’—one’s ‘state’ or ‘condition.’ ”

As habitus evolved in Latin, Ayto adds, it could refer to either an outward condition (such as clothing) or an inner condition (one’s character or way of behaving).

Those Latin senses, he says, were “taken over lock, stock, and barrel  by English, although the clothing sense now survives only in relation to monks, nuns, and horseriders.”

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