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Today I found myself saying "through the retrospectoscope" to a non-medical person. The retrospectoscope is a poke at the tendency of doctors to rely on medical devices (ultrasounds, Cat scans, etc) to make diagnoses while jabbing at someone with 20/20 hindsight. We could just say, "in hindsight" like the rest of the population, so when I used it, I started to explain myself, but the person I was speaking to (a businesswoman) understood perfectly what I meant.

I'd like to know when the word retrospectoscope was first used and if it has passed into the understanding if not usage of non-medical people today. It's not on Etymology Online, but is in the Urban Dictionary, and I've seen it in the New York Times, and it's in Sheehy's Hillary's Choice:

Looking back through the retrospectoscope from 1999 to 1992, Davis sees a tragic pattern: “One can speculate that the whole chain of events that led to the Whitewater investigation, then led to Ken Starr, which then led to the investigation of Monica and finally to impeachment can be traced back to the first Jeff Gerth New York Times....

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    Since you say it means “in hindsight” I thought maybe that’s what you use during a colonoscopy ;-)
    – Jim
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 3:41
  • The word doesn't appear in OED at all (not just as a head word, nowhere in the text). It would be appear to be vanishingly rare.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 11:57
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    That it's neologistic jargon explains why you don't find it in regular dictionaries.
    – Bread
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 23:05
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    @Jim - Shooting the moon is 'hindsight'. I think your looking too deeply if you need a colonoscope. ;) Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 0:58
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    Late comment is late, but I just wanted to note that although I have never seen or heard this word before today, I find its formation perfectly transparent and its meaning perfectly clear. I would have understood you immediately as well, despite having never heard it before. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 15:42

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The earliest example I found is from 1940:

Instead of being listed as histories, prophecies and wills of the class, were on the program as "retrospectroscope," "futurama-scope" and "etho-cosmascope."
The Emporia Gazette from Emporia, Kansas: January 26, 1940 (newspapers.com subscribers only)

Given how early this is compared to the other examples, in addition to the fact that it has a slightly different meaning than the sense you mention in the question, I'm not sure it's related to the term used in the medical field or not.

The next most recent examples I found were from 1954:

As Dr. Merrill Sosman of Boston has often pointed out the "retrospectoscope" is a wonderful diagnostic aid.
The association of gallstones and heart disease

Adm. Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the atomic energy commission used his "retrospectoscope" the other day to recall an experience with the late Sen. Smith W. (Wild man) Brookhart of Iowa.
Corpus Christi Times: May 5, 1954; The Independent Record from Helena, Montana: May 9, 1954 (newspapers.com subscribers only)


As for usage, it seems to be mostly confined to the field of medicine, with some usage beyond that. There are quite a few hits for the word in the title of scholarly papers (in the field of medicine of course), like this one. Some of the results I found, like this one and this one don't seem connected to medicine.

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  • Fantastic first use find! While it carries no irony, it does mean the same thing: the abily to see into the past. Thank you. :) Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 16:26
  • I too +1 this answer. But it does not answer the 2nd ? you posed - current use and acceptance.
    – lbf
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 16:30
  • @lbf Yeah, I completely forgot about that. Thanks, I added to my answer.
    – Laurel
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 19:33
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this ngram sheds light on usage:

enter image description here

I'd like to know when the word retrospectoscope was first used?

The Emporia Gazette cited elsewhere is one of the earliest uses.

Has use passed into the understanding if not usage of non-medical people today?

Yes. It appears to me and by my research, the following links show diverse and continued use this year. (U.S. articles):

black history month, episcopal blog, a reply in a U.S. tweet, a jogging blog, medical article

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