All-purpose Corpus

By Maeve Maddox

Corpus is just one of thousands of everyday Latin words that have not only outlived their original speakers, but have replicated in English like amoebas.

Latin corpus means “body.” It entered Old French as cors and passed from there into Middle English. From then on the spelling and pronunciation fluctuated until the various spellings and pronunciations took on meanings other than just plain “body.”

Corpus and its plural corpora proliferate in medical terminology, giving such labels as corpus callosum and corpora striata, which name structures in the brain.

Apart from learned uses, the word corpus has spawned several words that everyone is familiar with and a few that occur in literature. I’m going to look at seven of these words.

1. corpus [kohr-puhs]
First there’s the word corpus itself. Although no longer used to refer to a living body, corpus still means “body” in a figurative sense. A corpus is a body of literature, a body of information, or an author’s body of works. In this sense, corpus means “collection.” There’s a subcategory of linguistics called corpus linguistics that gathers and studies collections of speech and text gathered from non-literary, non-academic sources. An example of the linguistic corpora studied is the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), an online collection of 450 million words gathered from U.S. sources, 1990-2012.

2. corpse [kohrps]
Once the word for a living body, the noun corpse now means only a dead one. When it comes to choosing words for their emotional effect on the reader, corpse is probably one of the creepiest words in English.

3. corporation [kohr-puh-rey-shuhn]
In 1534 a corporation was “a number of persons united, or regarded as united, in one body.” In 1611 a corporation was “a body of people legally authorized to act as a single person.”

Eighteenth-century jokers called their abdomens “corporations.” I love this OED citation from Thomas Smolett (1721-1771): “Sirrah! my corporation is made up of good wholesome English fat.”

In modern U.S. law, a corporation is an organization formed with state governmental approval to act as an artificial person to carry on business (or other activities), which can sue or be sued, and (unless it is non-profit) can issue shares of stock to raise funds with which to start a business or increase its capital.

4. corps [kohr]
This incarnation of Latin corpus came into English a second time, again from French, this time in the expression corps d’armée, literally “body of the army.” The term reflected a new way of using the army by breaking it down into smaller, more mobile tactical units. Such a unit was a corps. The word came to mean any body or company of persons associated in a common organization.

In the current U.S. Army, a corps is a large unit made up of from two to five divisions. A division is made up of from 10,000 to 18,000 soldiers. Corps is also used in the name of one of the branches of the U.S. military, the Marine Corps, and government employees who serve abroad in U.S. embassies are members of the “diplomatic corps.”

Corps is a popular name choice for civilian organizations that wish to suggest that their work and purpose have a military-like focus: Job Corps, Peace Corps, Mom Corps. The expression esprit de corps is used to describe the sense of enthusiasm, loyalty and devotion to a group that characterizes an organization like the Marine Corps.

5. corpulent [kohr-pyuh-luhnt]
The adjective corpulent means “large, bulky, fleshy, fat.” A corpulent person has a lot of body.

6. corporeal [kohr-pohr-ee-uhl]
The adjective corporeal is used to describe anything that has substance. A living person is said to be corporeal; a ghost is incorporeal. There’s a legal term, incorporeal rights, that refers to property that cannot be seen or touched, but may be owned and inherited, like copyrights, trademarks, and patents.

7. corpuscle [kohr-puh-suhl]
The noun corpuscle is probably most familiar in the context of biology class. Corpuscles: Minute rounded or discoidal bodies constituting a large part of the blood.” The word comes from Latin corpusculum, “little body.” In English it can also mean “any minute body (usually of microscopic size), forming a more or less distinct part of the organism.”

8. corposant [kohr-puh-sant]
This one isn’t so familiar an offspring of corpus, but it’s interesting so I’m including it. You may have heard of something called St. Elmo’s Fire. It’s a light-producing weather phenomenon. In the days of sailing vessels, sailors often saw the light playing eerily about the masts. The common name derives from the patron saint of sailors. The other name, corposant combines Latin corpus sanctum, “holy body” or “saint’s body.”

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9 Responses to “All-purpose Corpus”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “First there’s the word corpus itself. Although no longer used to refer to a living body…”

    I have seen the phrase “corpus delecti” in print before – to be honest, it was in a newspaper comic strip. I will let you people who know more Latin look up the meaning, but from the context, I thought that it meant “dead body” because it was in the Dick Tracy comic strip.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The word “nonprofit” is not hyphenated.
    As a matter of fact, the prefix “non” is not hyphenated onto anything except for proper nouns and adjectives, such as non-Catholic, non-Protestant, non-British, non-Latin, and non-Soviet.

    Examples of the common adjectives include nonscientific, nonverbal, nongrammatical, noncontinuous, nonaligned, nonnative, nonnegative, nonoperational, nonresponsive, nonrational, and nonzero.

    Some people from the British Isles might argue with the above, but this is the American way of writing things.
    On the other hand, many Britons do not agree with northeast, northwest, southwest, and southeast, but Americans and Canadian do.
    One large territory of Canada is the Northwest Territories, its official name by an act of the Canadian Parliament in 1912.
    D.A.W.

  • Matt Gaffney

    Where in God’s name did the pronunciation guides come from? They’re entirely wrong.

    The correct pronunciation guides, in order, are:

    From G&C Merriam-Webster—\ˈkȯr-pəs\; \ˈkȯrps\; \ˌkȯr-pə-ˈrā-shən\; \ˈkȯr\; \ˈkȯr-pyə-lənt\; \kȯr-ˈpȯr-ē-əl\; \ˈkȯr-(ˌ)pə-səl\; & \ˈkȯr-pə-ˌsant, -ˌzant\

    From American Heritage— (kôr’-pəs); (kôrps); (kôr′pə-rāˊshən); (kôr); (kôr′pyə-lənt); (kôr-pôr′ē-əl); (kôr′pə-səl, -pŭs′əl); & (kôr′pə-zənt)

  • rAy

    Thanks for that, thought I was saying / pronouncing it wrong like forever and those include all the cop shows in that.

  • rAy

    Is it possibl the writer is from one of the New England states; LOL?

  • venqax

    I second the question about the pronunciations. A long time ago I remember the same point arising in regard to Am vs Br pronunciations. I don’t recall the details, but I think I remember that some sources seemed to indicate that in Standard American English, the vowel sounds in law and lore were the same. The difference being that in SAE, the terminal R in in lore is pronounced. I can’t speak for RP, no pun meant, but it is most certainly not true that AW and OR vowel sounds are the same in SAE. These pronunciation guides seem to reflect that notion. Where does it come from?

  • venqax

    The online MW does it as we right. It uses the symbol o with a dot above as the phonetic indicant for the vowels in for, lore, port, law, and the au’s in author and autumn. It goes on to indicate that taught, bought and wrought all rhyme with dot. What th’ell is going on there? This is certainly not SAE (the cot-caught merger is not SAE, yet, thank God.) I’ve never been a MW fan, but this is less than I expect even from it.

  • venqax

    Corpus delicti (kor-pus de-lik-ty, rhymes with lick tie) means “body of the crime”. In law, it means all of the substantial evidence needed to prove a crime has been committed. So, if the crime is murder, the corpus delicti would at least include the dead body. But the term does not mean body, or dead body, in that sense. If you had a burglary, the broken window and dropped burglary tools could be the corpus delicti. If you have an aggravated assault, the injured person could be the corpus delicti– though still very much alive. Granted, the term isn’t ususally employed to mean those things, but a corpus is not necessarily a corpse.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you, Venqax, for explaining to us what “corpus delicti” means.
    I had only seen it in the DICK TRACY comic strips back in the 1960s, and I didn’t know precisely what it meant.

    The subject was from when heart transplants were new and hot in the news. The mastermind crook was the leader of a gang that was killing people, stealing their hearts, and then transplanting those into very wealthy people who were willing and able to pay. The crooks had invented some kind of a device for preserving the hearts until they could be transported and implanted. For some reason, the mastermind liked to say “corpus delicti” all the time.

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