Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Foetus or fetus?

Human Fetus drawn by Leonardo da Vinci
There was a recent spate of tweeting about the correct spelling in British usage of fetus - or foetus. As the Oxford Dictionary makes clear, the spelling foetus has no etymological basis.

A similar debate 50 years ago was initiated by James Dixon Boyd and William James Hamilton in connection with the first edition of their influential textbook Human Embryology (previous post). This was in the BMJ. Coincidentally Bernard Towers (later Professor of Anatomy and Pediatrics at UCLA) raised the issue in Arch Dis Child. Earlier, Lionel Everard Napier had argued for "fetus" in The Lancet.

The thrust of their arguments was that "fetus" was the only spelling in use until 600 A.D., "foetus" being introduced by Isidorus of Seville on the basis of an erroneous etymology.
Statue of Isidorus of Seville in Madrid
Photo by Luis Garcia CC BY-SA 2.5
Boyd and Hamilton solicited opinion on the subject and the resulting letters fell out 5 to 1 in support of "fetus." Among the supporters was J.H.M. Pinkerton, later Professor of Midwifery and Gynaecology in Belfast. The counter argument, "Foetus is a word of respectable antiquity and lineage," was advanced by Hugh Gault Calwell who is known to have been skilled in Greek and Latin. Sadly, when Human Embryology appeared, it used "foetus" rather than "fetus."

References: BMJ 1967 (5337): 425, (5539): 568, (5540): 631, Arch Dis Child 1967; 42:224, Lancet 1952; 260: 885-6.

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