Thursday, 17 October 2013

Things you never knew about your body: Part 1

We all know the names of the parts of the body, where the parts are and what they do. What we might not know are the strange origins of some of those names, as well as some of the bizarre uses that parts of the body have been put to, literally and figuratively speaking. Over the next few posts, I'll be expounding on some weird and wonderful linguistic facts regarding certain parts of our bodies.

Let's start with the origins of some of these terms. Your shoulder is quite a large, flattish bone. If you took it out of your body, you might be able to use it in the garden (or maybe you wouldn't be able to, as one of your arms would be inoperative), because it probably comes from an ancient root meaning “dig”. Of course, if you do anything vigorous like digging, you'll need plenty of muscles – all those little mice running around your body. For indeed, that's what muscle means, coming from Latin musculus, literally “little mouse”, so named because in ancient times muscles flexing were thought to resemble mice moving around. Just think of that next time you're down at the gym watching those bodybuilders pumping iron. Of Mice and Men.

Still on the subject of animals, the most prominent features of carnivores are their fangs, those big, sharp pointy teeth. What are they used for? Seizing and gripping, of course, which is precisely what fangs do, as evidenced by these exact meanings in Old English. By the time Dracula came along, he no longer needed to seize or grip his victims with his fangs; he just needed to plunge them in the neck. One group of animals, to which we indeed belong, are the mammals, so named because they have mammaries to supply milk to their young. This term came about because baby Romans used to cry out mamma! to their mothers, who responded by offering them their mammaries. Of course, the big question is, do baby vampires say "fangs for the mammaries"?

Other body parts with interesting origins include the skeleton. While we think of the skeleton as all the bones in the body connected together, that's a relatively modern usage of the word, as originally a skeleton denoted mummification, from the Greek skeleton soma, literally “dried up body”, from the verb skellein, “dry up”. So, with Halloween coming up, it would be more appropriate to wear a mummy costume than a skeleton one.

The extremities of the skeleton consist of fingers and toes, ten of each. However, technically speaking you should have twenty toes and no fingers, or at least, the toes should be on your hands. One of the most common and obvious things we do with our fingers is point. In fact, that's why we call them digits. Latin dicitus came from an ancient root meaning “point out, show”, related to English “teach”. Dicitus changed in time to digitus and referred to the things we point with, namely fingers. The idea of digits being pointers was clearly the case in the Germanic languages, because the Old English ta, which gives us the modern “toe”, comes from the same root as dicitus. Essentially, "toes teach", at least according to their ancient meanings. In time, “finger” took over the meaning of the digits on the hand, while toes remained on the foot, having long lost their association with pointing. Unless, of course, you wear shoes with pointy toecaps.

One last part of the skeleton has come to mean something you might pop into your mouth and crunch away on. No, this is nothing to do with cannibalism. It involves the Latin bracchius, which meant “arm”, and which produced brachitellum, “little arm”. This was borrowed by Old High German as brezitella and used to denote a biscuit made in the form of folded arms, the modern “pretzel”. So, logically speaking, that's something to think about next time you're at a cocktail party.

Look out for some more tasty morsels in the next post on body parts.

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