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Help Ammon Shea: Gossypiboma

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks for help finding the etymology of the word “gossypiboma”.

On the web site that I recently put up I’ve included my email address, along with the exhortation for anyone who cares to write me with any questions they have about obscure words. I am not any more qualified to answer such questions than most people, and I am certainly less qualified than any lexicographer would be, but that doesn’t stop people from asking questions, or me from attempting to answer them. In some cases it’s seemed that someone will write me with a question because they were too lazy to look it up in the dictionary themselves. I’m always happy to drop whatever I’m supposed to be doing to go look something up in a dictionary, so I do not mind these questions at all, even if they accomplish little, aside of helping me waste some time.

However, this morning I received a question from a surgeon that accomplished two things: it confused me greatly and it reinforced the exceptionally negative view I have of doctors. The letter-writer wanted to know more information about the word gossypiboma (which she then helpfully defined as the word for a retained surgical sponge – “a memento that we surgeons sometimes accidentally leave behind to commemorate our presence in some poor patient’s abdomen.”)

According to the letter writer the word has been in use since the 1970s, and has a wonderfully mulish pedigree (from a mixture of Latin and either Swahili or Maasai).

I have not seen it in any dictionaries, and don’t know when it will work its way in. And so I’ve decided to ask the question myself, through this blog, if anyone has any more information about this wonderfully horrible word.

Has anyone seen it in a dictionary? Or has anyone a certain etymology? Or has anyone had a sponge left inside of them and then had the doctors who left it explain that gossypiboma is the term for what just befell them, followed by a scholarly explanation of how the word came about?

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Recent Comments

  1. Michael Quinion

    WordSpy (http://www.wordspy.com/words/gossypiboma.asp) dealt with this in January 2003 and quotes this source:

    The profession has coined a word for a left-behind surgical sponge: gossypiboma, from the Latin word gossypium for cotton and the Swahili boma for “place of concealment.”
    —Denise Grady, “Forgotten Surgical Tools ‘Uncommon but Dangerous’,” The New York Times, January 21, 2003

  2. Michael Quinion

    Further to my last comment:

    One source (General Thoracic Surgery: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Practice, by Thomas W. Shields et al, 2004), claims it was created in this article:

    # Patel AM, Trastek VF, Coles DT. Gossypibomas mimicking echinococcal cyst disease of the lung. Chest 1994;105:284–5.

    This is the earliest I’ve found. Searches suggest it’s not as old as the 1970s.

  3. Mark Ong

    Definitely described in the 1970s:
    Williams RG, Bragg DG, Nelson JA. Gossypiboma: The problem of the retained surgical sponge. Radiology 1978:129:323-6.

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