Intussusception and Insusuration
Bill Long 10/22/04
I had a nightmare before the finals of the National Senior Spelling Bee, held in Cheyenne, WY on September 11, 2004 [I placed second in the bee, losing to a brilliant champion, Dr. Jeff Kirsch, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison]. I was tossing and turning, fell asleep, and then dreamed that I was doing an oral round of the spelling bee. The pronouncer had just intoned the word "intussusception," and I, in my dreamy state, got tied up with all the "esses" and made a mistake. In fact, I didn't get the word on the next day; I fell finally to sericeous, which everyone who is in the know (and I wasn't) knows is on the "words most misspelled and most likely to be asked" list. But it made me want to make my peace with intussusception, and I hope to do so here.
Though I will try to reclaim the term for humanities use below, the dominant use of intussusception, not unexpectedly, is in the medical field. It is derived from the Latin intus, meaning inside, and suscipere, meaning to taking up. Thus, intussusception means to take something up or inside something else. It has been used since the late 18th century to describe the taking up of a part of the intestine into another part. We can get more specific. The intestine consists of three layers, the external or outermost (or the sheath or the "receiving layer") of which is called the intussuscipiens. The innermost layer is the intussusceptum and the middle is the receptum. Thus, in intussusception, the invaginated segment (you might want to check out my comments on invagination), or the intussusceptum, is inserted into the intussuscipiens. I am no medical doctor, but I think this is a problem. As one medical authority had it, intussusception is a "disaease of the intestinal tube." Actually, there are tons of medical web sites out there defining it as a "serious problem."
A Humanisitic Reading of Intussusception
Now that we have recognized its significance in medicine, we are freed to see it used more broadly. Earlier than its medical connotation is the meaning of "a taking within or absorption into itself." A second definition is even more suggestive: "The taking in of things immaterial; e.g., of notions or ideas into the mind." In the latter sense it was used by O.W. Holmes, Sr., "The intussusception of the ideas of inanimate objects"; or, more visually, by the great philologist Max Mueller, "I..take this view of the gradual formation of language by agglutination, as opposed to intussusception. The idea of absorption seems to be at the base of its humanistic signification. I think we have replaced intussusception in our normal speech (though I don't think we ar aware of it) by the word "osmosis." Or, as popular motivational speakers used to say in the 1980s, 'the most powerful lesson is what is caught, not taught.' But, let's restore intussusception to describe the subtle and possibly unconscious absorption of ideas, thoughts, sentiments into the mind. "Long acquaintance with the teacher led her to intussuscept his values as to speech, words, spelling and language." Or, "the purpose of a Ph. D. program is not so much to grasp more facts or theories as to intussuscept the habits of study and the ability of critical analysis by great minds."
Why not use it in a romantic/sexual connotation? "Intussusceptions of her presence filled his mind as he tried in vain to get some work done." Here the word suggests not simply the process of absorption but the act of taking something into the mind. These intussusceptions are certainly not obtrusions even though they may be preoccupations.
Then, why not use the invagination/intussusception word play to aid in sex talk for highly educated people (who often need some kind of extra sexual stimulant because they become so absorbed with their work)?
"Scene I. At a bistro. She looks at him with fire in her eyes, and he returns the gaze. She only says one word. "Invaginate?" He looks back at her and says only one word, "Intussuscept?" They quickly pay the bill and hustle off. Scene 2. That is for YOUR imagination!!"
Returning Back to Earth with Insusurration
Ok. Fun is over. Back to one more word for today. Intussusception reminds me of insusurration, possibly because of similar beginnings and endings and all the "ess" sounds, even though the words have nothing to do with each other. Insusurration is onomatopoeic and is defined by the OED as "a whispering into the ear; an insinuation." Say the word susurrare a few times. It sounds like a whisper. It rolls and flows and whispers quietly. And its signification is so suggestive, as suggestive as anything that can be whispered in the ear.
The religious folks first staked a claim to it: "The Spirit sometimes instils some drops of this gladsome ointment into our souls by soft insusurrations in silent night." Isn't that a rather sweet picture--the whispers of the Spirit as a healing salve or balm? We all know we need some of those whispers on occasion, don't we? Instead of the pounding insistence of the tasks of the day just completed or the day about to begin, wouldn't we much rather have the gentle insusurrations of the universe, the rustling insusurrations of the leaves, the calming cooing of a loved-ones insusurrations?*
[* The other meaning, an "insinuation," is also attested, and can be used negatively as we might use the word "whispering campaign" today. "The criticism gradually developed from subtle insusurrations to audible expressions of discontent."]
Christians may claim that we are saved by grace through faith, but I think we are all saved by well-placed insusurrations.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long