Saturday, November 16, 2013



Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944), On the Art of Writing (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1916), pp. 34-35:
I was waiting, the other day, in a doctor's anteroom, and picked up one of those books—it was a work on pathology—so thoughtfully left lying in such places; to persuade us, no doubt, to bear the ills we have rather than fly to others capable of being illustrated. I found myself engaged in following the antics of certain bacilli generically described as 'Antibodies.' I do not accuse the author (who seemed to be a learned man) of having invented this abominable term: apparently it passed current among physiologists and he had accepted it for honest coin. I found it, later on, in Webster's invaluable dictionary: Etymology, 'body' (yours or mine), 'anti,' up against it: compound, 'antibody,' a noxious microbe.

Now I do not doubt the creature thus named to be a poisonous little wretch. Those who know him may even agree that no word is too bad for him. But I am not thinking of him. I am thinking of us: and I say that for our own self-respect, whilst we retain any sense of intellectual pedigree, 'antibody' is no word to throw even at a bacillus. The man who eats peas with his knife can at least claim a historical throwback to the days when forks had but two prongs and the spoons had been removed with the soup. But 'antibody' has no such respectable derivation. It is, in fact, a barbarism, and a mongrel at that. The man who uses it debases the currency of learning: and I suggest to you that it is one of the many functions of a great University to maintain the standard of that currency, to guard the jus et norma loquendi, to protect us from such hasty fellows or, rather, to suppeditate them in their haste.
The earliest example of this word cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is
1901 L. HEKTOEN & D. RIESMAN Text-bk. Pathol. 231 Substances which appear during spontaneous or artificial infection or intoxication are known as antibodies (Antikörper) and antitoxins.
Slightly earlier examples can be found, e.g. Medical Review 35.2 (January 9, 1897) 26:
The experiences with the "antibodies" of cholera and typhoid fever also demonstrate the advisability of caution with reference to this matter.
But most of the supposed 19th century examples in Google Books turn out to be bogus on closer examination.

Quiller-Couch misunderstood the meaning of antibody, in calling it "a noxious microbe" and "a poisonous little wretch." Webster's 1913 Dictionary makes it clear that antibodies are generally beneficial and "act in antagonism to harmful foreign bodies."


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