Corporal vs. Corporeal

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between corporal and corporeal, and what do these words have to do with other teams beginning with the syllable corp-? They are all of a body.

As you may have guessed, most words beginning with the element corp- refer to a body, denoting either a human or animal’s mortal coil (as in the case of corpse) or an organization of people or things. The origin of this class of words is the Latin term corpus, meaning “body”; that term was borrowed into English and is synonymous with corpse, which comes from French, but also refers to the main body of a bodily organ or a thing or idea, or the whole of a person’s artistic output or a complete collection of knowledge.

Corpus is the also first element of several open compounds, including “corpus callosum” (Latin for, literally, “callous body”), referring to a part of the brain, and “corpus delicti” (the Latin phrase literally means “the body of the crime”), the concept of the body of proof for commission of a crime.

The adjectival corporal means “affecting the body,” as in the phrase “corporal punishment.” It’s also a noun referring to a linen cloth used in church services; the meaning is connected to the concept of the body of Christ. (The noun corporal, when used in reference to a low-ranking soldier, is unrelated. It stems from Latin caput, meaning “head”; a corporal originally led a small unit of troops.) Corporeal, on the other hand, denotes anything that is tangible as opposed to spiritual.

Other words stemming from the Latin term follow:

Corporation, and its adjectival form, corporate, and the verb incorporate, all refer to a business registered with a government

Corposant, from the Portuguese expression for “holy body,” is another word for “Saint Elmo’s fire,” the name for a natural electrical discharge.

A corps is a large military unit or branch, or another group of people with a function in common; the term is part of the phrase “corps de ballet,” borrowed directly (as the word corps itself) from French and referring to the dancers in a ballet company; corps is pronounced roughly the same as the French word.

A corps d’elite is a military unit or another group whose members are selected for superior skills or other qualities. Corpsman (from membership in a medical corps) is a synonym for medic, a soldier trained to provide basic medical care; it also refers to a member of a government-sponsored service group, such as the National Conservation Corps.

Corpulent means “obese,” and a corpuscle is a very small particle or a cell or group of cells in an organism. (The word core, from the French word coeur, meaning “heart,” is unrelated.)

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1 Response to “Corporal vs. Corporeal”

  • Stephen

    I think you mean terms instead of teams in the first paragraph. The typo has also appeared on the main page of the site.

    I found this very interesting. Although I knew that the two headline terms came from corpus, I didn’t know many of the other derivations. In particular, I realised when reading this that the term ‘body corporate’ (a legal term in the UK) is redundant.

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