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Vegetative state - vegetable
Posted: 15 September 2007 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I did not find much in wikipedia/wiktionary and a little googling.

One obvious theory is the similarity of the two terms (phonemes or how do you call that?).  I heard someone claiming that the origin of the expression lies in the observation that brain damaged patients are seemingly being cared for like in a (vegetable) garden, e.g. in the ICU or long term care.  Seems to make sense, too.  Does anyone know more?  Sources?

[ Edited: 15 September 2007 02:10 PM by traugott ]
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Posted: 15 September 2007 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The OED defines the oldest meaning of the adjective “vegetable” as “having the vegetating property of plants; living and growing as a plant or organism endowed with the lowest form of life”, and cites the quotation “To a sowle that were vegetable… with-oute sensibilite”. This is pretty much exactly the sense in which “vegetable” is used of a brain-damaged person, to convey that they have been deprived of the “animal” functions of apprehension, comprehension, cogitation, etc.

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Posted: 15 September 2007 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Well said, but isn’t that the rather obvious?  It would be great to know when the word first came up, e.g. did it come up with/is it related to long term care of brain damaged individuals (which would be a 20th century thing), or was it already in use for individuals with most severe developmental delay (who, in the preindustrial times, probably ended in asylums/mental “hospitals” if there was no private caregiver)?  Some history would be nice ....

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Posted: 15 September 2007 02:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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the OED citation quoted by Syntinen is dated around 1400 according to etymonline.

But the adjectival meaning seems to be the opposite of the current meaning, which seems to be something like “Alive but just.”

Maybe not.  “lowest form of life” might cover our current meaning ....

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Posted: 16 September 2007 01:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Is the “-able” ending in “vegetable” the same as in, say, “potable”? (Oh, for access to the OED!)

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Posted: 16 September 2007 06:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The OED doesn’t break down the word as it was adopted in whole from the French and ultimately comes from the Latin vegetabilus. My guess is that it is the suffix -able.

The application to humans is rather recent. Adjectival use from Abbott’s 1854 Life of Napoleon:

The pauper peasantry, weary of a merely vegetable life, were glad of any pretext for excitement.

Use as a noun meaning a human living a monotonous life is from the early 20th century. From Shaw’s 1921 Back to Methuselah:

What use is this thousand years of life to you, you old vegetable?

Use to refer to a brain-damaged person appears by the 1950s. From the Chicago Daily Sun-Times of 29 Dec 1953:

It should not be inferred that Rocky is a vegetable, incapable of thinking for himself.

It would appear to come from this earlier, monotonous life sense, rather than any metaphor of tending a garden.

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Posted: 16 September 2007 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Let me say, without any restraints: WOW.  That’s pretty much what I was looking for. 

2 questions arise:
1) Obviously, the 1950s quote may not be the earliest with re. to persons with brain damage, correct? It is just the earliest that you or another scholar could locate, isn’t it?

2) Where did you get these quotes so quickly, anyway?  Is there another source dealing with this question?  And papers of the 50s are neither in the net nor on LexisNexis ...

Anyway, thank you so much!

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Posted: 16 September 2007 03:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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traugott - 16 September 2007 11:31 AM

2) Where did you get these quotes so quickly, anyway?  Is there another source dealing with this question?  And papers of the 50s are neither in the net nor on LexisNexis ...

Anyway, thank you so much!

THe OED is available by subscription “on-line.” Those who live in certain parts of the UK have access to the OED through an internet connection via their library system. Syntinen, for example, is from the UK.

We polloi who do not have such a connection or subscription must settle for etymonline.com (a poor substitute) or one or more of the on-line dictionaries.  There is also newspaperarchive.com which is also available by subscription and its archive is growing.  The subscription there is, I think, about $9.95 per month.

There is an extensive list of resources listed in Dave’s FAQ off of his home page (see resources).

[ Edited: 16 September 2007 03:36 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 16 September 2007 05:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Use to refer to a brain-damaged person appears by the 1950s. From the Chicago Daily Sun-Times of 29 Dec 1953:

THE NEWARK DAILY ADVOCATE: WEDNESDAY, JUNE 14 1893 (via NPA)

Guy de Maupassant is now in what his doctor calls a vegetative state [indecipherable] incapable of connecting two ideas together.

According to Wiki, he died in July of that year.  FWIW Wiki writes

He was considered insane in 1891 and died two years later, a month short of his 43rd birthday, on July 6, 1893.

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Posted: 16 September 2007 05:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Thank you - although my interest is more about the vegetable, not the vegetative state.  I knew a little about OED, but did obviously not know about about newspaperarchive.com, which is a great idea.  But who was it who just told me that subscription content in the net does not go that well ....

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Posted: 17 September 2007 01:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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although my interest is more about the vegetable

Which vegetable?
Nice that the word was drawn from roots (no pun)that meant liveley, or to enliven.  Of course, it was long held that plants were alive but had no senses.  This is doing plants down; trees grow upwards, roots grow down, sunflowers turn to the sun etc. so clearly plants do have some kind of sense!
However, compared to animals the reaction to external stimuli is slow (even so there are some notable exceptions) and vegetables were seen only to exist and grow, not react or think.  so the transfer of the term does not seem odd at all.

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Posted: 17 September 2007 05:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Somewhat off point—but the word reminds me of the great lines from Marvell’s poem “To his Coy Mistress:

“My vegetable Love should grow
Vaster than Empires and more slow”

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Posted: 17 September 2007 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Note that many US libraries offer online access to the OED for library card holders. The San Francisco Public Library does. Check your local library to see if they do.

The 1950s cite is not necessarily the first use of the term in this sense, just the oldest in Oxford’s files at the time of publication. And in almost all cases, informal and unrecorded spoken usage existed for several years before it would have been appeared in print.

In this case, the dictionary entry is from the 1989 Second Edition and I think it likely that the usage has been antedated by others since then. But the late-40s/early-50s is probably when the usage arose.

[ Edited: 17 September 2007 05:56 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 17 September 2007 05:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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However, compared to animals the reaction to external stimuli is slow (even so there are some notable exceptions) and vegetables were seen only to exist and grow, not react or think.  so the transfer of the term does not seem odd at all.

Don’t forget that a lot of people find the veggie term demeaning ... a hospital discussion about the (in)appropriateness of the wording vegetable state years ago triggered my interest.  Not that anyone thinks that you can use it officially, but the question is whether it could be tolerated medical colloquial language.  On the other hand, butcher comparisons would sound even more rude (It should not be inferred that Rocky is a ham, incapable of thinking for himself.

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Posted: 20 September 2007 08:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I remember a Billy Connolly joke from the 70s about Mr and Mrs Caulieflower’s son being in a car crash and the doctor saying he’d live but, the bad news, he’d be a vegetable for the rest of his life.  Not really improved with age that joke.

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Posted: 11 October 2007 02:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Don’t forget that a lot of people find the veggie term demeaning ... a hospital discussion about the (in)appropriateness of the wording vegetable state years ago triggered my interest.

Just reading the Oct 15 New Yorker.  In the article “Silent Minds” by Jerome Groopman, professor of medicine at Harvard the author offers the following definition of vegetative state vs. coma

A person in a coma appears to be asleep and is unaware of even painful stimulation; a person in a vegetative state has period of wakefulness but shows no awareness of her environment and does not make purposeful movements.

Two observations:

1. “Vegetative state” is an accepted term of art in medicine.  But you may mean referring to a person thus afflicted as a “vegetable.” A British Neuroscientist is quoted as referring to such a person by saying, “She was the first vegetative patient I came across.”

2. The meaning may have evolved a bit, at least in professional circles and technical usage.

[ Edited: 11 October 2007 02:38 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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