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Looking at WordsIn my research for the biography of my great-grandfather, I’ve come across this word, chirurgery or its related forms chirurgical and chirurgeon, a number of times. It didn’t take long to figure out that it must be a variant form of surgery, surgical, or surgeon. But where did it come from and when did it disappear from common use? I don’t think I have the complete story yet, but here’s what I know so far about this intriguing word.

It’s a known fact that English vocabulary is rife with words borrowed from other languages.And it’s also well known that many of our medical terms find their origin in Greek and/or Latin. The Latin term for surgery was chirurgia, while the Greek form was cheirourgia. But the spelling in Old French was serurghien, which was later modified to surgien. So it appears that the word in Middle English, surgerie, followed the French spelling rather than the Latin or Greek.

Then the Renaissance came along. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), sometime around the 16th century, the spelling of the word in English reverted to the Greek-influenced form chirurgery, with the accompanying pronunciation of the first syllable as a k sound rather than an s, and with the accent on the second syllable. That would make it sound something like “ki-rur’-dgery.” Think of it like the first syllable in chiropractic. In both cases the “chi” means “hand” in Greek.

What I still can’t find is any evidence of when the spelling and pronunciation shifted back to our current form. The latest use of chirurgery that I could find cited in the OED was dated 1846. But I have seen it still used in documents printed in the late 1800s. So I am guessing that by the beginning of the 20th century at least, we had managed to shake off the influence of those Renaissance pundits and went back to the original spelling and pronunciation of surgery. In every dictionary I consulted, the variant chirurgery is now labeled as “archaic.”

If you have any more information about the history of this word, please share it!

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