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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