Q: With all the attention on Ebola, there is increased use of the term “bodily fluids.” I keep muttering at the TV screen whenever I hear this pretentious phrase. My gut says it should be “body fluids.” What is your opinion?
A: Both phrases are OK, so use whichever one sounds best to your ear—or to your gut.
The word “bodily” has been used as an adjective since the 1200s, and the noun “body” has been used adjectivally nearly as long.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bodily” used as an adjective is from Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1300.
We’ll skip the OED citation, since most of our readers will probably find this different example from the same poem somewhat easier to read: Of bodili substance if þu wil witt, Manis saule þat es it. (The letter thorn, þ, here was pronounced like “th.”)
The earliest Oxford example of “body” used adjectivally is from King Horn, a Middle English poem written around 1225: Þu art kniȝt … of grete strengþe & fair o bodie lengþe. (The letter yogh, ȝ, was pronounced like a “y.”)
Standard dictionaries now list “bodily” as either an adjective or an adverb.
The adverb, which dates from the 14th century, has to do with the body as a physical entity, and is seen in phrases like “they were bodily present” and “thrown bodily from the room.”
As an adjective, however, “bodily” usually concerns the inner workings of the body.
Oxford Dictionaries online gives this example of “bodily” used as an adjective: “children learn to control their bodily functions.”
As for the phrases “bodily fluids” and “body fluids,” the “bodily” version appears to be older, with examples in Google Books dating from the 1700s.
Here’s an example of “bodily fluids” from Mammuth, or Human Nature Displayed on a Grand Scale, a 1789 travel book by the Scottish writer William Thomson:
“A revulsion in the bodily fluids, occasioned by sea sickness, or some other cause, often effects the most surprising bodily cures.”
And here’s an example of “body fluids” from an 1891 issue of the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society: “The germicidal action of human blood and other body-fluids was effectually removed by heating it for half an hour up to 60 degrees.”
As for the word “body,” it’s something of an etymological mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
“For a word so central to people’s perception of themselves,” Ayto writes, “body is remarkably isolated linguistically.”
The noun, spelled bodæi in early Old English, has a cousin in Old High German (botah, potah, etc.), “but otherwise it is without known relatives in any other Indo-European language,” Ayto says.
Finally, you may wonder why “Ebola” is always capitalized. The virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an outbreak occurred in 1976.
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