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Currently listening to the audio book "Digital Fortress", I came across the word "cadaver" in reference to a dead human body for the first time. Somehow it struck me as a degrading way of referring to it.

So I started wondering what governs the choice of the three words body, cadaver and corpse (and potentially stiff and lich) for a dead human body. I.e. would cadaver carry a more formal or medically correct connotation compared to body or corpse?

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    This isn't an answer because it's just my personal intuition: Cadaver is medical jargon; I'd be surprised to see it outside of that context. Corpse and body are both normal usage; corpse is slightly more formal (it's what a police officer would say), but more importantly, a corpse is unambiguously dead, whereas you can talk about the body of someone who is still alive. Stiff is dated slang, and lich nowadays is only used for a particular type of undead (compare revenant) in fantasy fiction.
    – zwol
    Sep 11, 2013 at 22:52
  • I rarely hear "cadaver" used outside a medical setting unless it's being used as an adjective: cadaverous
    – dcaswell
    Sep 11, 2013 at 23:38
  • Why does it have to be degrading? It's a pretty common word amongst literature and crime shows. According to Wiktionary it's a pretty old (1500s) word with latin roots. I've never heard it be used in a degrading manner. It simply is a word that litterally means a dead body.
    – Jacobm001
    Sep 11, 2013 at 23:44
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    I said I perceived it as degrading (or probably as choster pointed out dehumanizing is the more appropriate term), doesn't mean it has to be. A native speaker of English is clearly more qualified to comment on this, which is why I asked here. Connotations are something you get right from language use. Since I have heard it the first time in this context, I have no experience with the word and lack an idea of the connotations. Sep 12, 2013 at 0:18
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    Can we add "carcass" to the list of words asked about? What are the differences among the words cadaver, corpse, body, and carcass? Jan 29, 2015 at 14:11

2 Answers 2

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Corpse and cadaver are both medical/legal terms for a dead body. I would not call them degrading per se, but perhaps dehumanizing, and that is not necessarily for ill intent: we use clinical and legal terminology to be precise as well as to avoid emotional or cultural connotations of alternative terms that can be a distraction (e.g. pinna as opposed to ear, vertebral column as opposed to backbone).

Although cadaver is the older word, it has come to refer in particular to a dead body used for medical or scientific purposes, for example, for medical students to dissect, while corpse is used more generally. I do find corpse to be somewhat more evocative than simply dead body, as it brings to my mind an embalmed dead body, or the reanimation thereof, but that is likely the fault of too many zombie films.

A more elevated alternative would be remains, and remains which have been elevated for religious purposes are termed relics.

If on the other hand you did want to disrespect the dead, you could call the dead body a carcass, the word for a dead animal body used for food, whether processed by abattoir or buzzard. Etymonline says it is "not used of humans after c.1750, except contemptuously."

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  • Was the body in the story being used for such study? If so, it could be that, far from being degrading, it's most apt word to use.
    – J.R.
    Sep 11, 2013 at 23:56
  • @J.R.: The body in the story was at the coroner's office or police station, something like that. Sep 12, 2013 at 13:39
  • @0xC0000022L - And which character uttered the phrase? I can see an author having a gritty detective use the word, perhaps as a means of character development.
    – J.R.
    Sep 12, 2013 at 16:32
  • @J.R.: "David Becker", a university professor and protagonist. But I think it's just the narrator, not the character that uses the word. Sep 12, 2013 at 17:47
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I work with police reports in teaching technical writing skills, and from reading a number of those, the distinction I commonly see (dealing with the same body) is...

The police officer finds the dead body/body at the crime scene.

The pathologist autopsies the cadaver.

The corpse is what gets buried.

In crime reporting, no presumptions are made in advance, so, upon arrival at the scene, a cop will likely not call a body a "dead body" unless there is indisputable proof. That rules out cadaver and corpse, and sometimes dead body, for the purpose of crime scene investigation.

As another answer notes, and the definition of the word commonly attests, cadaver implies a human body and is reserved for medical contexts: autopsies, dissections, and the like; and so its use is closely related to a specific context: hospitals, med schools, morgues.

Corpse, which also has the meaning of "something no longer useful" or "remains", is the least useful, descriptive, even humane of the three words, and perhaps this is why it's most common in the context of the thing that gets buried. Although redundant, dead body works in this context too.

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