Transplant semantics

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Jessica Firger, "First human head transplant two years away, says one surgeon", CBS News 2/26/2015:

Most people can't wrap their head around the concept. But one scientist believes head transplants in humans are possible and that the first could occur as early as 2017.

In expressions of the form X transplant, for X=kidney, heart, etc., the X comes from a donor, and is installed in or on a recipient. If Kim and Leslie get kidney transplants, their identities remain the same from both a common-sense and a legal perspective.

But suppose Kim and Leslie get head transplants. Are they still Kim and Leslie? Or are their post-transplant identities those of the donors of the heads? And in that case, shouldn't we call the procedure a body transplant?

[The projection of head transplants in 2017 seems to be controversial at best, but even if doesn't happen until 2117 outside of science fiction, the linguistic question remains…]


  1. David L said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    I saw some newspaper headlines that described this as a body transplant, but that didn't make much sense to me, since the first meaning I have for "body" is that it refers to the whole kit and caboodle, head included. So a body transplant would be when the patient is sedated and under a wrap and then, while the surgeon is looking the other way, the nurses whip off the wrap, lift the patient off the table, and quickly substitute a different patient.

    An easy and safe procedure, unless they drop either patient on the floor.

  2. Carl said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    In his Schlock Mercenary web comic, Howard Tayler coined the term "decorpitation" for when you cut off someone's body and keep the head. (Presumably for the purpose of regrowing the body later.)

  3. Mark F. said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

    It's not unusual for words to have one sense that's more restrictive than another. There are definitely contexts where "body" can mean "body except for the head", and I think this is one of them. In any case, this would be either a body transplant or a body-except-for-the-head transplant, depending on your tolerance for the more limited sense of the word "body". A head transplant would only make sense if it was a head-except-for-the-brain transplant.

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

    Not sure about the medical side, but the grammatical implications seem clear:

    1. Those with both heads transplanted onto the same body = fused head.

    2. A mother donating what was her own head to her child = headless relative.

    I promise to stop now.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    This week's New Scientist is hedging its bets on the linguistic question. The relevant title on the cover reads: "HEAD TRANSPLANTS – Inside the two-year plan to swap old bodies for new ones". Inside the magazine, the same equivocation operates in reverse: "WELCOME TO THE BODY SHOP – Surgeon launches two-year plan to carry out a human head transplant".

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 1:33 pm

    There's another sense of "X transplant" parallel to the questioned usage here that can be seen in e.g. southerners observing and/or complaining about "Yankee transplants," where the whole point is that the transplanted Yankee retains an unassimilated Yankee identity in the new non-Yankee context and location, possibly to the chagrin of the indigenes.

  7. Schroduck said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

    @ Bob Ladd

    New Scientist actually explains the logic behind why they call it a head transplant rather than a body one:

    The head transplant moniker is partly a hangover from monkey and dog experiments of the last century. This was how the surgeons that carried out those experiments referred to the procedure, and it stuck.

    Technically, calling it a body transplant would be more accurate because the head is representative of the person receiving the new body part. But be careful, it's not a whole body transplant. That term is usually used to describe a procedure in which the brain of one organism is transplanted into the body – and skull – of another.

    By calling Sergio Canavero's proposed surgery a head transplant it makes it clearer that this involves the head and the brain inside.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

    By calling Sergio Canavero's proposed surgery a head transplant it makes it clearer that this involves the head and the brain inside.

    So my students didn't invent that construction? :-)

  9. Robot Therapist said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

    Ewww, this after the previous post is an unfortunate juxtaposition!

  10. Mark S said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    We were passing the graveyard where my wife's parents are buried, when she, intending to make the point to our young son that their spirits were elsewhere, said "It's just their bodies," to which he replied, "Where are their heads, then?"

  11. J. F. said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

    I agree that we should we call the procedure a body transplant.

    After hearing the news, I joked to someone I wanted a head transplant to make me smarter. Unless it's a dog's head. (Maybe even then.)

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 28, 2015 @ 12:16 am

    In heart, lung, and kidney transplants, we name the procedure after the organ being transplanted. So a brain transplant is a perfectly coherent concept from a procedural point of view, even if the person who wakes up after surgery self-identifies as the donor rather than the recipient.

  13. philip cummings said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 5:32 am

    On Saturday, the [English] Times referred to the procedure as a 'body transplant'.

  14. Lane said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 11:40 am

    Daniel Dennett in 1978 called a brain transplant the only transplant where it's better to be the donor than the recipient…

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