• An overly detailed and inappropriately intensive examination of something

  • The process of cutting open live animals, usually for scientific study

  • Any cruel experimentation on live animals


Vivisection is not a fun word to analyze. Its most basic meaning refers to the process of cutting open animals while they are still alive. At the time when the word was coined, scientists were legally permitted to conduct experiments of this kind on living animals, with only minimal restrictions. Thankfully, the word vivisection was soon being employed by advocates on both sides of a vigorous debate over the moral permissibility of cutting open live animals. If you were alive in the 19th century, you might have declared, "I believe that vivisection is simply cruel and wrong, even if it might cure my tuberculosis." In so saying, you would be boldly stating that you believe it is immoral to cut open living animals even if it advances scientific and medical understanding. You could also use the word in a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek fashion, saying something like, "After the dog peed on her new carpet, Aunt Lucy looked as if she might vivisect it right then and there!"

Thankfully, the debate over vivisection has led to the almost complete outlawing of vivisection, in its original sense, in many countries. However, the debate over vivisection is still raging because the meaning of vivisection has broadened since the early 19th century. Today, vivisection can refer to any experimentation on live animals which is considered invasive or cruel. Opponents of vivisection today might be speaking out against a wide variety of practices, including the testing of pharmaceuticals on animals. Some people argue that some vivisection of this kind is necessary to insure human safety, but others believe that all potentially harmful experimentation on live animals should be banned. You'll have to determine what you believe about this issue for yourself, but now you at least understand the language of the debate.

The meaning of vivisection has broadened yet further, however. It can now refer to any examination of something which is overly and injuriously detailed and intensive. This usage of the word can be thought of as analogous. A vivisection of a subject dismantles that subject and destroys it in trying to understand it, just as vivisection of an animal destroys the animal in studying it. For example, you might describe an overly didactic analysis of a lovely poem as "an appalling vivisection of a fine piece of literature." Or you might warn your cousin's new boyfriend to prepare himself for Aunt Lucy's grueling vivisection of his character. This would indicate that Aunt Lucy is going to go beyond just thoroughly examining his character, and is instead going to overanalyze every last detail. Thus, the meaning of vivisection has expanded considerably over time, but all of its usages are still, pretty much, negative.

Example: From the comfort of his office, Mr. Bambrick had been convinced by statistics demonstrating the scientific effectiveness of vivisection, but in the laboratory he found the squeals of the rabbit to be a compelling counter-argument.

Example: Although the experimentation on rats had revealed that the medicine was potentially harmful, many still decried the studies as vivisection.

Example: Harold's relentless vivisection of the funny film ruined the watching experience for everyone else involved.


Vivisection was coined in English at the end of the 17th century. The beginning of the word is derived from the Latin root vivus which means "alive" (as in "vivid" and "vivacious"). The end of the word is the ending of "dissection." The word combines the two parts to mean literally "to dissect alive."

Derivative Words

Vivisect: This verb, which was derived from vivisection, refers to the act of cutting open or experimenting on a live animal (or the act of conducting an overly detailed inspection). Vivisects refers to an act of vivisection happening presently or at a particular time, and vivisecting can act as a noun meaning the act of vivisection or as a verb referring to an act of vivisection done over time.

Example: When she heard that I had swatted a fly, she looked at me as if she thought I might vivisect a rabbit at any moment.

Example: Whenever Bayley wants to understand a poem, he brutally vivisects the poor thing.

Example: Vivisecting every detail of someone's personality is not a good way to get to know them as a friend.

Example: Many of us spend our entire lives vivisecting ourselves, and still never reach any satisfying conclusion.

Vivisector: This noun refers to someone who practices vivisection.

Example: Even though the frog was entirely anaesthetized, Herbert felt like the most malevolent of vivisectors once he saw that its heart was still beating.

Vivisectionist: This noun, a synonym of vivisector, refers to someone who practices or utilizes vivisection.

Example: Some activists denounced Simon as a vivisectionist, but he believed that his carefully monitored experimentation on animals had the potential to save countless human lives.

In Literature

From H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau:

Yet surely, and especially to another scientific man, there was nothing so horrible in vivisection as to account for this secrecy.

Here, Wells' protagonist Pendrick is puzzling over Dr. Moreau's attempts to conceal his vivisection of animals. In Wells' day, vivisection was controversial but not absolutely forbidden.

From H.G. Wells' The War in the Air:

He wanted to talk about the business, to show the splendour of her nature in the light of its complications. It was really most embarrassing to a press that has always possessed a considerable turn for reticence, that wanted things personal indeed in the modern fashion. Yet not too personal. It was embarrassing, I say, to be inexorably confronted with Mr. Butteridge's great heart, to see it laid open in relentlesss self-vivisection, and its pulsating dissepiments' adorned with emphatic flag labels.

Here, Wells uses vivisection to convey the way that Butteridge openly scrutinized his own shortcomings and personal foibles in great detail.


  • Vivi- = Alive (as in "vivid" or "vivacious") + Dissection = Vivisection ("to dissect alive")


Animal Rights, Science, Morals, Analysis

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of vivisection. Did you use vivisection in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.