The Grammarphobia Blog

Why surgery is an operation

Q: My wife and I were talking about the way the word “operation” seems associated most often with surgery. Do you have any idea how this came about?

A: Why does the word “operation” often call up images of surgery? Perhaps because the surgical sense is one of the oldest meanings of the word.

For nearly 600 years, English speakers have used “operation” to mean “a surgical procedure performed on a patient,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Early on, the word often appeared as part of the phrase “operation of hand” (or “hands”).

The oldest examples in English come from translations of French medical books. The French had been using their word operation to mean a surgical procedure as early as 1314, the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest English example, probably dating from before 1425, is found in Grande Chirurgie, a translation of a work by Guy de Chauliac:

“Cyrurgie [surgery] is a party of Cerapeutici, i. of curing, heling men by inscisions & adustions & articulacions of bones … and by oþer operacioun of handes.”

Another translation, entitled Surgery, done around 1475 from a book written 150 years before by Henri de Mondeville, has this example:

“Smal woundis þat neden not to be sewid schal be left to þe worchinge of kynde, for operacioun of hond profitiþ not to hem.”

And The Frenche Chirurgerye; or, All the Manualle Operations of Chirurgerye, translated in 1598 from a book by Jacques Guillemeau, has this definition:

“This worde operatione is an artificialle and normaticke applicatione wrought by the handes on mans bodye, wherwith the decayed health is restored.”

By the mid-17th century, English physicians were using “operation” for “surgery” in writing originating in English. This example is from Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physitian Enlarged (1655): “Manual operations, or chyrurgery.”

However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century that the English verb “operate” (as well as the French operare) meant to perform surgery.

The OED‘s earliest English example is from Robert Godfrey‘s Various Injuries and Abuses in Chymical and Galenical Physick Committed Both by Physicians and Apothecaries, Detected (1674):

“I by diligent observance, by Operating … having gain’d the knowledg of some Injuries in Physick.”

This much later example is from the Westminster Gazette (1874): “The phrase ‘When in doubt, operate,’ was, I believe, first made use of by Sir William Lawrence with regard to the methods to be adopted in treating cases of strangulated hernia.”

The medical term “operating room” came into use in the early 19th century. Oxford‘s earliest example is from an 1831 issue of the New England Magazine:

“An infant … was brought into the operating room, a short time since, to be cured of a very common deformity by the knife of the surgeon.”

Getting back to the noun “operation,” its surgical sense is derived from the medical usage in French, but it ultimately comes from the classical Latin opus (work), according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The English word “operation” has other meanings too, all of them ultimately derived from opus, though some came into English from French and some from medieval or classical Latin.

The other meanings include activity or working (before 1393); an act of a technical nature (circa 1395); a particular kind of activity, as in “the operation of drilling” (1562); a mathematical process (1713); a strategic military movement (1749); the condition of being active (1792); a business transaction (1832); the action of operating a machine, business, etc. (1872); a criminal enterprise (before 1902).

As Ayto notes, the Latin noun opera, originally a plural of opus, “came to be regarded [in Latin] as a feminine singular noun meaning ‘that which is produced by work.’ Italian gave it its musical sense, and passed it on into English.”

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