Intended for healthcare professionals

Fillers When I use a word …


BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 14 October 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:953
  1. Jeff Aronson, clinical pharmacologist
  1. Oxford

    As I have mentioned before (BMJ 1999;319:1758), at one time the indefinite articles “a” and “an” were joined to the words that they governed—for example, aman or anoke. When the words were later split again, some spurious words were formed in error—for example, instead of a naranj we have an orange and instead of a noumpere we have an umpire. This process is called metanalysis, one casualty of which was “anatomy.”

    Anatomy is from the Greek άνέ (ana, up) and τέµνω (temno, I cut). In addition to its current meaning, the study of the structures of the body or the structures themselves, at one time it also meant a skeleton. When the indefinite article was being restored to its separate existence, the word “atomy” was falsely coined from “anatomy” through aphaeresis, by the removal of the supposed indefinite article. Gay used it in The Beggar's Opera (2, i). When Matt of the Mint is asked what has happened to his brother, Tom, he says that he had an accident—in other words, was hanged—and having fallen into the hands of the dissectors “is among the otamies [sic] at Surgeon's Hall.” By extension atomy also came to mean someone very thin; witness, for example, its appearance in Henry IV Part 2 (5, iv, 29): “… you starved bloodhound. … Thou atomy, thou!” Even Dickens used the word figuratively in Dombey and Son (Chapter IX): “Withered atomies of teaspoons.”

    I recently thought that I had come across a modern instance of the word, in Anthony Burgess's translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, which was used to subtitle Jean-Paul Rappeneau's 1990 film of Edmond Rostand's play. The couplet in question (which occurs in the famous balcony scene in Act 3) is about love:

    Aussi l'ai-je tenté mais tentative nulle,

    Ce nouveau-né, Madame, et un petit Hercule.

    Burgess translated this as follows:

    But the tough atomy I thought to seize

    And crush, turned out an infant Hercules.

    But there is another word “atomy,” describing a property of the atom, smallness, or things that are tiny. Queen Mab, Mercutio tells us, is “Drawn with a little team of atomies/Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep” (Romeo and Juliet, 1, iv, 58). So did Burgess use atomy here in the sense of a tiny insignificant being (a metaphor that was coined long before the true power of the atom was known)? Well, if so, why did he choose to call it tough? It would have been more natural and accurate to have written:

    But the tender infant that I thought to seize

    And crush, turned out a pocket Hercules.

    No, I think that Burgess, a consummate practitioner of logodaedaly, chose “atomy” for deliberate ambiguity, implying that the love borne for Roxane by Cyrano (her “almost brother” as she describes him in Act 2) had started out as a skeletal friendship but later became a grand Herculean passion. Neither anatomy nor an atomy.