a limb by any other name …


As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows – and my sincerest thanks to both of you – I refer to an amputated body part as a  “residual limb”. I’ve used this phrase ever since becoming an amputee, largely because I have a visceral, reflexive and negative reaction to the word “stump”. I adopted my anti-stump stance immediately after my accident. I didn’t need to perform any research to arrive at my position, nor did it take long for me to learn the alternative term “residual limb” and adopt it as my phrase of choice to describe what remained of my left leg.

Because I’m obsessively self-aware, I’ve questioned why this is the case many times over the last 15 years. If a psychologist analyzed me, I’m sure she would conclude that my choice of a dispassionate, clinical term comes naturally since I’m a guy who’s either “emotionally closed off” (her description) or “level-headed” (mine).  In fact, every time I utter the words, I think of the George Carlin routine where he explores how “shell shock” evolved into “post-traumatic stress disorder”.

If the word or words describing my remaining limb sounded as cool to me as “shell shock”, I like to think that I’d use them. But “stump” doesn’t sound cool. It has always struck me as slightly gross. Every time I hear or read the word I can almost smell the faint but distinct rotting odor emanating from it. Thinking that my anti-stump bias must be based on some rational basis, I looked up the word’s origins last night:

stump (n.) 

mid-14c., “remaining part of a severed arm or leg,” from or cognate with M.L.G. [Middle Low German] stump (from adj. meaning “mutilated, blunt, dull”)

Source: http://www.etymonline.com

Mutilated. Blunt. Dull. Not exactly terms that make you feel good about yourself.

My little foray into the origin of the word only confirmed that I had a valid basis for rejecting “stump” in favor of “residual limb”. At the same time, though, whenever I use the latter I feel a bit pretentious. As the words leave my mouth, a voice inside my head says – in a Cockney accent, by the way – “What mi’Lord – you’re too good for stump? Good on you, Perfessor. Perfessor Stumpy, you take your stump on up to Oxford and shove it up your arse!” (I take some solace in the fact that my internal demons are at least original enough to assume distinct personas, even if they are puncturing my heavily defended sense of self.)

So, it seems my choice is to either use a word that makes me feel slightly nauseous on the one hand, or a phrase that exposes me as an arrogant git on the other. Neither of those options, upon closer examination, strike me as particularly exciting, so I’ve gone to the undeniable arbiter of truth in modern society, the internet, to look for guidance.

First, I googled “prosthetics and orthotics”, as I wanted to see what parlance dominated the electronic pages of prosthetic facility websites. The results were not unexpected. The first 10 sites that chose to discuss limb care and treatment all used “residual limb”. I shouldn’t have been surprised – it’s harder to sound professional when you talk about fitting the latest and greatest prosthetic technology on a stump as opposed to a residual limb. So the only thing this proved to me was that clinicians choose clinical-sounding language.

Second, I googled “amputee support group” to see if there was a split between the grass-roots and the world of patient care. This approach started promisingly, with the first local support group proudly including the word “stump” in its title. However, I quickly hit a dead-end after perusing 50-60 results and determining that the vast majority of support group websites focus primarily on scheduling, and contain little to no content that would advance the “stump” v. “residual limb” debate.

Unable, shockingly, to obtain clarity from the magical interweb, I’m left little choice other than to suggest possible alternatives to either of the two options already discussed. Accordingly, here are the top 10 options I’ve come up with, replete with analysis of their respective strengths and weaknesses. These are not in rank order – they’re just the 10 options I humbly offer to you.

10. partial limb

This has the benefit of being an accurate description. If you don’t have a full limb, odds are you probably have a partial one.

Unfortunately, the phrase lacks punch. It’s hard to rally around the partial limb bandwagon because it’s like trying to get excited about a battle of the bands between Adam Lambert and Big Time Rush.

9. truant limb

“Truant” refers to one who shirks duty. On the plus side, this sounds vaguely militaristic (see “shell shock”, above) and therefore, somewhat cool. Also, there’s an air of danger about truancy. We’ve all read about truancy officers chasing down kids who are supposed to be in school. So it has a rebel-without-a-cause veneer.

On the other hand, from a purely technical perspective, what’s left of an amputee’s limb isn’t truant. The truant limb is what’s gone, not what remains. So linguistically, this phrase doesn’t work all that well. (Please note, however, that this does not automatically disqualify it from consideration. See, e.g., “pre-board”, which, taken literally, refers to getting on a plane before getting on a plane.)

8. lingering limb

Big plus: alliteration. Never, ever underestimate the value of alliteration (see, e.g., “The Great Gatsby“, “Sin City“, “Beastie Boys”, and “Marvin the Martian”).

Negative: something that lingers always eventually leaves. Lingering is a transitional state. You can’t linger forever – if you did, you’d be staying. If you (or a body part) is lingering, eventually you (it) have to go. For someone who has already lost all or part of a limb, the thought that more of your body may disappear is, in business school parlance, suboptimal.

7. prevailing limb

The positive aspect of this phrase is that it’s triumphant. With so many negative connotations in the language describing the world of disability, this stands in stark contrast. You half expect the prevailing limb to unfurl a banner proclaiming its victory and accepting oaths of fealty from the remaining arms and legs still attached to your body.

But what exactly has it prevailed over? More often than not, what’s left is not a victor, but rather, a mere survivor. What’s worse – the traditional negative language around limb loss or falsely claiming victories you haven’t achieved? “Prevailing limb” presents fundamental ethical issues that cannot be easily answered.

6. adhering appendage

See 9, above (alliteration).

On the flip side, “appendage” is a somewhat ponderous, indistinct word. Also, “adherence” is often preceded by the word “slavish”, giving it a semi-fanatical aura. We don’t need more fanaticism in modern America.

5. retained limb

This sounds somewhat like “residual limb” while perhaps ringing slightly more affirmatively, as you usually retain things of value. However, the positive aspects of this phrase may be undercut by the common, modern usage of “retention”, which involves the payment of your money to a third party (often a little-liked consultant or, worse, an attorney).

4. extant member

An alternative meaning of “extant” is “still existing”. This has an exotic flair, a certain je ne sais quoi, that will stop people in their tracks and compel them to take you for a person of substance and gravitas.

Unfortunately, that immediate first impression will quickly give way to society’s sophomoric and inevitable rush to equate the word “member” with another body part. That involves a discussion of a very different limb loss community than the one I’m prepared to talk about.

3. cantle limb

“Cantle” is a segment cut out or off of something. It’s arresting. It makes “extant” look positively pedestrian.

However, no one in the real world has any idea what the hell it means, so uttering this phrase will, more often than not, lead to blank stares or requests for additional clarification, which will require you to choose one of the other 9 options (11 if you count the original terms giving rise to this post) described herein.

2. limb snippet

Attractive mainly because it reverses the normal order of things. Here, the limb leads.

It’s doubtful, though, that after this initial “How cool!” reaction, the bloom will stay on the proverbial rose. I was briefly in a band during college. We spent more time thinking of band names than we did practicing or playing gigs. From that I learned something very important: things that seem extremely clever and funny at first blush rarely are 20 minutes later. (For the record, we went with “Vibrating Egg” as our moniker. I rest my case.)

1. moncone

As far as I can tell, this is the Italian word for “stump”. Everyone says that Italian is a beautiful language, and having heard a fair amount of it, I unequivocally agree. So, I’ve tried to take the hideous (stump) and perform a linguistic extreme makeover (moncone).

The primary downside I see to adopting this as the label of the future is the need to explain it in English, which brings us right back to “stump”. Thus, I fear this becomes a vicious circle.

the big finish

With all of this safely behind us, I now open the voting to the first less is more readers’ poll. Should I be using something in this blog other than “residual limb”? Or alternatively,  do the old tried and true survive your scrutiny? Cast your vote and help determine what appears in these hallowed e-pages in future installments. The revolution starts here.

9 thoughts on “a limb by any other name …

  1. I tend to use “residual limb” because I have an Ertl amputation, also known as an Osteomyoplastic Transfemoral Amputation Reconstruction. So I don’t have a “stump” that is “mutilated,” far from it, it is indeed a limb reconstruction – and perhaps a better description – that allows me to do things my old anatomical damaged foot would not.

  2. My daughter has called hers “stumpy” as long as I can remember, but I have no idea where that phrase came from. (I can’t believe Stumpy did not make the top 10 🙂 I honestly do not ever remember calling it a “stump” so my guess is that her and her sisters probably coined the phrase when playing one day, and it just stuck. The girls have given their dolls some odd names over the years, so at least “stumpy” is a name that people understand! “Stumpy” comes out of our mouth as easily as the name of a family member, but I will have to say that we have received many glares over the years when we say “stumpy” in public. I never really think about how it sounds to the outside world until we see an odd reaction to the word.

  3. I’ve also wrestled with what to call it and finally settled on stump. While in the hospital after my traumatic amputation, I had a peer visitor stop by to talk. He said, “It’s going to sound strange to you now, but the best thing you can do is get to where you love your stump.”

    I love my stump.

  4. it depends who I’m talking to. If i’m talking about my amputation to someone i don’t know i tend to use residual limb just in case that person is a little squeamish. To my friends i call it ,my stump, but in the case of a fellow mathematician it has been referred to as my 2/3 leg so instead of two legs I’ve got 5/3 legs. For some reason that’s really funny. I’ve also gotten into the habit of calling it “stumpy stumpalumpagus” or “mr. stumpalumpagus”. I’m really not sure where those came from but my girlfriend and i have a blast with these (yup, sometimes you just gotta regress in age a few years). although moncone sounds good too 🙂

  5. I mostly use the term stump or stumpy. At times I will laughingly call it my abbreviated leg. It is what it is and I’m not what you would call politically correct.

  6. I don’t like the term “residual”. It sounds like the grounds at the bottom of a bad cup of coffee. I don’t particularly like “stump” either, so I refer to mine as “Steve”.

  7. My husband is firmly in the “Stumpy” camp. I have called it his leg, Stumpy, residual limb, and occasionally stump. I do refer to those heinous in-grown hairs (there is a downside to silicone) as alien babies. As in, “How is your alien baby today?”

  8. My dad’s always called his a stump. He used to have a little song he’d sing when he was first getting used to walking with it: “Jumpin’, thumpin’, bumpin’, stumpin'”

    When my nephew was younger and curious about it, we referred to the whole thing (stump + prosthesis) as “Grandpa’s Robot Leg.”

    Actually, my nephew inspired a bunch of cool terms for otherwise uncool/mundane things. When I used to be on dialysis, I told him I had to go to the “BLOOD DOCTOR” (dramatic movie trailer voice necessary) to get “EVEN MORE POWER” by becoming “AN ELECTRIC CYBORG.”

    Obviously, we explained everything properly to him, and he knew the reality of our situations, but giving everything a little embellishment was fun!

    We’re an odd family.

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