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Autopsy is defined as

inspection and dissection of a body after death, as for determination of the cause of death; postmortem examination.

Necropsy is defined as

the examination of a body after death; autopsy.

In practice, it seems that "autopsy" is generally used when referring to the post-mortem examination of a human body, and "necropsy" refers to the examination of non-human bodies. I see no immediate evidence in the root words that would explain why we have this distinction, except perhaps for the "self" that αὐτός refers to being used to describe post-mortem examination of humans specifically, leaving "necropsy" to mean examination of dead bodies in general.

That is all conjecture, however, and it seems like a stretch. So: where do these two separate words come from?

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Bones. But my guess is 'complicated traditional word usage'. – Katey HW Sep 23 '11 at 18:14
@PeterShor what did autopsy mean before it was narrowed? It would be interesting if it were the (current) secondary meaning of "A critical assessment or examination after the fact", because "post-mortem" has a business meaning that is similar to that. We do a "post-mortem" after a project is completed, for example. – JeffSahol Sep 23 '11 at 18:37
Autopsy seems to have originally had the medical meaning of inspection by sight. The original phrase for autopsy (c. 1800) appears to have been the Latin autopsia cadaverica or the French autopsie cadeverique, which I assume would have meant "inspection of the cadaver by sight". My comment (which I deleted) speculated that necropsy started out life as a euphemism for cadaverous autopsy so as to avoid mentioning cadavers. – Peter Shor Sep 23 '11 at 19:47
There are many cases where we have two words that mean the same thing, and usually it's just because the words were coined independently. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 16 '14 at 4:15
There's also 'postmortem'. It's the obscurantist treadmill. Once people learn the old one you have to some up with a new one that people don't understand. – Mitch Dec 16 '14 at 4:33
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The word autopsy is older, and had the original meaning "to see with one's own eyes". The Oxford English Dictionary writes that it was first used in a now-obsolete sense in the 1600s:

The action or process of seeing with one's own eyes; personal observation, inspection, or experience. Now rare.

Its current use only dates from the 1800s:

Med. Examination of the organs of a dead body in order to determine the cause of death, nature and extent of disease, result of treatment, etc.; post-mortem examination; an instance of this.

1805 Philos. Mag. 21 240 The distinguishing signs of peripneumony and pleurisy are so uncertain that they have been doubted by some celebrated physicians; they have been so often belied by cadaverous autopsia.

Necropsy is a much more recent coinage, and dates from the 1800s:

1842 R. Dunglison Med. Lexicon (ed. 3) 470/2 Necropsy, autopsia cadaverica.

Note that in the example given, autopsy cadaverica and necropsy are synonymous. However, because an autopsy could have been the inspection of any body, it was used in the phrase "cadaverous autopsy" or "autopsia cadaverica". It seems that necropsy may have developed as a one-word term to describe the autopsy of a deceased person, though by the 1830s autopsy was being used on its own in its current sense:

1830 Foreign Rev. 5 502 Two days after the autopsy, which was performed immediately on the emperor's decease, the whole body turned yellow.

However, it can be argued that the 1830 example was really referring to an autopsy of a body in general, who happened to be deceased (as there is qualification within the sentence which refers to death). Then, the first use of autopsy on its own without such qualification would be in the 1880s:

1881 Times 22 Sept. 4/1 The physicians' autopsy [of President Garfield] shows the bullet to be nowhere near where it was supposed to be.

From this, I think that necropsy developed as a one-word synonym to cadaverous autopsy, and then over time autopsy came to be synonymous with necropsy.

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So if I'm understanding properly, "autopsy" was originally a term to describe personal observation. "Cadaverous autopsy" was an autopsy as we know it. "Necropsy" came to provide an abbreviation for "cadaverous autopsy", leading to the latter's falling out of usage. Do I have this right? – hairboat Sep 23 '11 at 20:12
@AbbyΨ I believe so. There is nothing in the OED as to why any of this happened, but that is the conclusion I came to having read the entries for both terms. – simchona Sep 23 '11 at 20:14

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