What does ‘auscultation’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: auscultation…

Many friends and colleagues had recommended the 2011 novel The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht to me but I never picked it up until this month.

Perhaps the promise/threat of “magic realism” — a genre I don’t typically enjoy — had held me off. But I can tell you now that I’m finding the book to be delightful. It’s even given me my word of the week, auscultation. Here is how Obreht used it:

We cut him off at the pass by asking him when he’d last had a physical and offering to get one started for him, doing his auscultation and taking his temperature and blood pressure before bed.

I’d never before seen the word, although of course I could tell from context that it referred to some sort of medical procedure. It turns out that auscultation is the act of listening to sounds arising within organs (such as the lungs) as an aid to diagnosis and treatment.

The etymology of the word is quite straightforward. It dates back to the 1630s and it’s origin is Latin, from the word auscultationem (nominative auscultatio), noun of action from past-participle stem of auscultare  meaning to “listen attentively to.” The medical sense of the term dates to 1821, “a listening to the internal parts of the body via a stethoscope.” The stem aus comes from the Latin auris, meaning “ear” and the second, third and fourth syllables may be related to clinere, meaning “to lean, bend.”