Monday, January 26, 2009


elinguation [ē-lin-gway-shun]
n. the removal of the tongue as punishment

[Latin: ēlinguāre, ēlinguātus]

Last year, I read this story about a Muslim man in Saudi Arabia who cut out his daughter's tongue and then burned her alive, upon learning that she had become a Christian. There was a similar story out of Santa Ana, from 2005, about a 50 year old man (presumably not a Muslim) who cut his girlfriend's tongue out and let her bleed to death.

These gruesome events got me thinking about this business of elinguation, or cutting out someone's tongue. The practice goes back at least to Biblical times and was a common punishment in the Christian world as recently as 250 years ago. Proverbs 10:31 reads, "The mouth of the just bringeth forth wisdom: but the froward tongue shall be cut out."

Just being froward ("stubbornly contrary and disobedient") doesn't seem like quite enough to get your tongue removed. However, my understanding is that elinguation was the normal punishment for crimes of slander, perjury and heresy.

Despite the murder of the Saudi Christian, it's not clear to me that Islamic Law calls for elinguation -- at least not in modern times. However, I know that the Muslim prescription for theft is cutting off the hand. And countries like Iran still have stoning and crucifixion for various offenses.

Most of them employing the suffix -tomy ("a cutting"), we have a long list of words for cutting off various body parts, though not usually for penal reasons. For example, when Lorena Bobbitt chopped off her husband's unit, that was a penectomy. The act of cutting off your own penis is autopenectomy. If a surgeon removes a woman's ovaries, that is gonadectomy. For a male, gonadectomy has a common synonym, castration, and a more medical one, orchiectomy.

A hundred years and more ago, castration was common enough for young boys, that opera companies and other choir groups often had a class of high-pitched male singers called castrati. Technically, they were not eunuchs ("a castrated man employed as a harem attendant in the Orient"), because castrati were chopped off entirely to maintain their boyish singing voices. The etymology of eunuch defines the word. From Greek, eune means bed or place of sleeping, while -ouchos means keeping or attending to. Thus, a eunuch is "one who attends to a place of sleeping, such as a bedchamber."

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