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The headlines on the Huffington Post reads

Grandfather Of Australian Boy Pictured Holding 'DECAPITATED' Head In Syria Tells Of Shock

Decapitated? It's used as an adjective here. That seems strange usage to me.

How? This way...

decapitate (verb) - Cut off the head of (someone)

The sentence could be - A cruel militant decapitates a soldier. This means he cuts off the head of the soldier.

So, once this brutal procedure is done, the head is separated from the body and then we can use the adjective decapitated. But then, it is the body that takes the adjective and not the head. That's how OxfordDictionaries defines the adjective decapitated in its example:

a decapitated body

So, it is decapitated body and not the head. What do we write a beheaded body or a beheaded head?

I would not have any problem with this headline (hypothetical)

A shocking image of boy holding severed head with decapitated body lying nearby in the pool of blood

To prove my point further, I would cite here something authentic that I as a doctor have read and used.

Let's take the word 'amputate'. It means to remove an organ from the body. It's a surgical procedure to save someone's life. For instance, if you have a diabetic foot, to prevent it spreading further, surgeons amputate that foot and the patient is saved. In this case, after surgery, we have amputated foot and not amputated patient! The latter simply means dead patient! Because you amputate a limb from the patient's body.

In the same way, we may have amputated limbs and not amputated body. If the surgery has been recently performed, we say, "That's the patient of diabetic foot, operated amputated." Yes, looking at the cut foot we say, "That's the foot, amputated." That is because the surgeon did not amputate the patient, but his foot. :)

Again, back to the question, if you cut off the head, the process is decapitating. After decapitating, you have severed head and decapitated body not decapitated head. So, would you confirm that the usage of the word is incorrect. Or am I missing something?

Thanks for reading! :)

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"So, kindly confirm, that usage of the word is incorrect." <== Many of us native English speakers naturally use that word in that way. And so, obviously that usage of the word isn't incorrect. –  F.E. Aug 13 '14 at 17:41
But you didn't change the meaning of that sentence. And what I said earlier still stands. There's a big problem with your question-post: that is, you are assuming that native English speakers are wrong when they use that type of usage. You should actually be asking why so many native English speakers find that kind of usage acceptable and why they speak and write that way. –  F.E. Aug 13 '14 at 18:38
That headline that you are criticizing is from a USA/UK online publication, which is written in English by writers and editors who are paid to write in more-or-less standard English for a native English speaking audience. Their style of English will often be more on the formal side than informal. Also, that sentence you are criticizing is a headline of an article, and headlines have their own way of wording stuff. And yes, simply put: English is what we the native English speakers speak. –  F.E. Aug 13 '14 at 19:58
Why do so many people say pair of panties, but a bra? Let's educate them! –  Jim Reynolds Mar 5 at 23:50
@Jay Er, you're replying to an 8 month old comment? Also, as to: But to say, "A professional writer wrote it, therefore it is correct" just doesn't follow. <== Did I say that? –  F.E. Apr 23 at 8:41

5 Answers 5

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As said in the comments, you are correct in doubting the usage of decapitated in that sentence. It should be "severed head" since the act of "decapitation" is done to the body and not the head, the head is removed from the body (the head is not removed from the head). The head is de-bodyfied. Somehow that sounds really gruesome though.

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The head is decorporated. –  Dangph Aug 13 '14 at 7:37
That makes it sound even more gruesome. It looks like it already has another usage though: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/decorporation –  Vincent Aug 13 '14 at 7:40
It's somewhat redundant and perhaps not ideal—I wouldn't recommend the phrase myself—but it's common enough in corpora that I'm reluctant to characterize it as an error. –  snailboat Aug 13 '14 at 23:45

'Decapitated head' is actually more common than 'decapitated body' (Google Ngram), but 'body [be] decapitated' is more common than 'head [be] decapitated' (Google Ngram)

I saw headlines like this and didn't think twice about it. (Linguistically, that is; emotionally I am deeply worried about decapitated bodies (or heads).) I think the meaning has extended beyond 'Cut off the head of (someone)' (but not as far an any other body part - there were no hits for 'hand/foot decapitated', 'decapitated hand/foot').

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Should the word mean 'cut off from the body', I would not have any problem with it. It explicitly means 'detached/cut head' and hence, it should not be used with 'head'. –  Maulik V Aug 13 '14 at 12:15
Any number of linguistics websites will tell you that 'etymology is not destiny'; in other words, what a word originally meant, or what its component parts can be understood to mean now, does not fix its meaning for all time. Meanings of words change, including many words we use every day without a second thought (eg next month is literally 'seventh month'). –  Sydney Aug 13 '14 at 12:44
I really wonder if we'll ever say, amputated patient instead of amputated limbs or for that sake beheaded head –  Maulik V Aug 13 '14 at 12:47
According to Google Ngram (which I can't link to) some people do! (not very many, but some) –  Sydney Aug 13 '14 at 20:33

There is no reason at all to feel ill at ease with that headline - at least from a linguistic point of view!

Although the head itself can hardly be said to be decapitated, neither is a pair of scissors left-handed. What happens is a common construction called a transferred epithet or hypallage.

Some examples include:

A left-handed pair of scissors: the user is left-handed
Those were happy days: the people living those days were happy
I had a restless night: I was restless, not the night

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+1 You made the point so well, that I think we should keep your decapitated head alive after your body leaves us, forever generating SE answers. –  Jim Reynolds Mar 6 at 4:11

I think the word you are looking for is disembodied. The head without the body is disembodied. The body without the head is decapitated.

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Disembodied suggests that whatever it is is massless - such as a disembodied voice, for instance. A disembodied head seems infelicitous to me. –  jimsug Aug 13 '14 at 12:10
The phrase 'disembodied head' does exist (can't link to Google Ngrams in a comment) but I agree that it seems infelicitous - one does not remove a body from the head; one removes a head from the body. (I suppose you could remove the body part by part, but that's the long way round.) –  Sydney Aug 13 '14 at 12:46

Maulik, you are correct to be ill-at-ease with the article title. Vincent is correct. The Latin basis for the word is: de- (expressing removal) + caput, capit- ‘head'. The correct usage should be "severed head", not "decapitated head". The second, which I see all the time in the middle- to low-rank media outlets, is grammatically redundant. This is the same reason why "... he killed him dead..." is incorrect.

Note some of the responses here defending the error with the two most popular defenses: that the error is common in everyday usage and that language changes. However I am willing to bet that the people who use it incorrectly are not thinking in either of those two modes when making the error.

You always hear people state that the purpose of language is communication. However another even more important purpose is as a tool to articulate the world in which we live. The word "decapitation" is one articulation level higher than "sever". When both are used as exact synonyms, language loses articulation and becomes less nuanced. This is an increasing problem with poor state of language education and the propagation of language errors through mass media.

As an English Language Learner, continue to use the same level of rigor in your use of the English language. It is wholly appropriate. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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+1 for your frank opinion. Though I did not get your last paragraph. :) you may paraphrase it for me to convey the message. –  Maulik V Aug 25 '14 at 6:32
Laure, the answer was clearly stated in the first paragraph of my response. –  Gary Aug 25 '14 at 6:50
I disagree with the conclusion, for reasons that have nothing to do with everyday usage or the fact that language changes. But I'm still giving this a +1 for making the case so clearly that one can thoughtfully choose how to use a word rather than thoughtlessly follow the flock. –  Ben Kovitz Mar 5 at 22:37
A decapitated body makes sense. A severed head makes sense. A decapitated head? It's a strange head indeed that can have its head removed. –  ColleenV Mar 5 at 23:48
That was my first post here. Today I would answer that question without the proselytizing. However, considering my academic background, language training, and the contemporary context, my feelings have not changed. ; ) –  Gary Mar 5 at 23:56

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