“Disembodied” Does Not Mean That

By Maeve Maddox

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In a very interesting BBC News article about ancient gardens, the writer describes an ancient relief that shows the vegetation-loving but brutal ruler Ashurbanipal and his wife reclining under a grapevine.

It’s an archetypal garden paradise—that is, except for the disembodied head of an enemy, which is hanging from a nearby tree.

The writer seems to think that disembodied—like dismembered, decapitated, and severed—has something to do with cutting off body parts.

It does not. Disembodied is the opposite of embodied.


The verb embody and its opposite can be used literally or figuratively.

embody (verb): to put into a body, to give a form to.

People, institutions, and laws are said to embody various abstractions. For example, Chef José Andrés, who organizes meals for people in disaster areas, embodies the Christian ideal of caritas—love of one’s fellow human beings.

disembody (verb): to separate from the body or to free anything from the form in which it is embodied.

disembodied (adjective): divested of a body; freed from that in which it has been embodied.

A frequent use of disembodied is to describe the voices of unseen speakers.

• A disembodied voice warns the crowd that the moment is about to arrive.
• The conversation is restrained, disembodied voices emerging from the darkness.

Writers of science-fiction and fantasy often explore the existence of creatures that exist without physical bodies.

• Megatron’s disembodied spark, trapped within the chaos-bringer, called out to Prime.
• She survived as a disembodied spirit and took over the bodies of some of the Council.
• Is there comfort in the idea that Max lives on as a disembodied consciousness in a parallel universe?


dismember (verb): To deprive of limbs or members; to cut off the limbs or members of; to tear or divide limb from limb.

dismembered: Deprived of members or limbs; divided limb from limb.

• Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster from the dismembered bodies of dead men.
• The real heroes are those who came back dismembered, mangled, crippled and blind.
• His dismembered remains were found April 24, 2004, on Baldwin Road in Bedford.

Anything that has parts can be “dismembered.”

• After the Caliphate was dismembered in 1015, a new, more decadent, era started.
• Formed in 2008, when the Home Office was dismembered, UKBA has always been a mess.
• When the empire was dismembered, peoples of all nationalities were everywhere.

Removing the head

decapitate (verb): To cut off the head of a person, animal, and sometimes other things that have a “head.”

• In March, authorities discovered a decapitated pig’s head wrapped in a blanket.
• African violets need to be decapitated at the crown level when issues with the roots or soil arise.

severed (adjective): cut in two, separated

Fishermen discovered his severed head in a canal 120 miles away two weeks later.

To avoid misuse of disembodied, ask yourself if the thing being described as “disembodied” would in fact be visible to the eye.

Consider the following examples:

• In the first TV commercial, a disembodied arm writes in big block letters CREATE.
• Is the disembodied arm under the couch too noticeable, or should we move it farther back?
• In a corner of a laboratory in Sydney, Australia, a disembodied lizard tail is flicking.

In each example, the thing being described as “disembodied” could be seen by a viewer and is, therefore, not disembodied. The arms are unattached to bodies, but are visible, as is the tail.

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