The simple 'spay' and the damage words can do

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: August 01, 2009
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Can you imagine going into the Ob/Gyn one year and being told they’re going to have to “spay” you? Ever wonder why they wouldn’t? I do.

I guess it has something to do with the etymology of the word and the sensitivity of the act of performing a full ovariohysterectomy on a woman. From the Online Etymology Dictionary, here’s the source of the word:

spay c.1410, "stab with a sword, kill," also "remove the ovaries of," from Anglo-Fr. espeier "cut with a sword," from M.Fr. espeer, from O.Fr. espee "sword" (Fr. épée), from L. spatha "broad, flat weapon or tool," from Gk. spathe "broad blade" (see spade (1)).

Kinda insensitive to be throwing around sword fighting terminology when it’s time for a delicate bit of surgery, right? Especially when it’s one that targets the female reproductive tract. 

The exact etymology of the Middle English or Anglo-French word, “spay,” still eludes me as I try to trace its veterinary origins. But it’s safe to say that women would never stand for any word that implies violence done to the inner workings of their reproductive organs. So it stands to reason that some veterinarians wouldn’t like it either when applied to their patients.

Yet I’d argue that we’ve long passed the point in our cultural history of language where the brutality this four-letter word connotes holds any sway with its modern users. No, for me the insult is in the way the word has evolved in a way that effectively trivializes the deeply complex act of removing female organs. 

In fact, I’d argue the same for the term “neuter”––as in:

neuter (adj.) 1398, of grammatical gender, "neither masculine nor feminine," from L. neuter, lit. "neither one nor the other," from ne- "not, no" (see un-) + uter "either (of two);" probably a loan-translation of Gk. oudeteros "neither, neuter." In 16c., it had the sense of "taking neither side, neutral." The verb is 1903, from the adj., originally in ref. to pet cats.

The need to distinguish animals in terms of reproductive surgical terminology is as old as the words “gelding,” “shoat” and “capon,” but somehow they all seem outdated in this new age of veterinary medicine. Even in veterinary school, it seemed incongruous to have to memorize common agricultural terms only to superimpose a complex but rational medical lexicon. What’s up with that? 

Perhaps that’s why the terms spay and neuter seem to run afoul of the rest of our medicine. In a world where chronic renal failure, inflammatory bowel disease and osteosarcoma are bandied about with absolute precision, how can we continue to write “spay” and “neuter” on our medical records? 

Wait, wait...I think I have the answer! Here goes:

The truth is that the need to euphemize is just as old as our desire to define and categorize. By applying vulgar terms to even the most distasteful practices, we were able to bring these animals to the dinner table with a minimum of human stress. 

Viewed in this light, it makes sense that we would continue to use the word “steer,” for example, when we refer to a castrated male of the bovine species. It makes it all so much easier to take when we eat him. Similarly, spaying and neutering is oh-so-much-more palatable to the average pet owner when we can circumvent the reality of the procedure with a simple verbal twist. 

But is that fair to veterinarians? 

Given that we work so hard to learn how to do what people think of as a “simple spay,” given that the public expects this procedure to be far less complex (and less expensive) than it really is, and given that the dubiously euphemistic verb, “to spay” might also serve to minimize our education and experience, some veterinarians way!

Yet when you also consider the widespread human irresponsibility with respect to spays and neuters in our companion animal population, doesn’t it only make sense to make the procedure seem more accessible and less clinical than it really is? 

Sometimes I think so. But I don’t have to like it.