Monday, 21 October 2013

Things you never knew about your body, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my little wander through the weirder side of names for parts of the body. In this part we'll start off with measurements. Probably the most obvious part of the body used as a measurement is the foot. The main problem with using a foot to measure things is the fact that feet are generally not the same length from person to person, so until a foot was defined as twelve inches, it was rather inaccurate, as all measurements based on body parts must have been.

The other four measurements in this discussion are all based on the upper limbs. The most obvious is the “hand”, though this is only used nowadays as a measurement in association with horses, despite the use of hands for measurement going back to the ancient Egyptians. Three other measurements take up more than the hand, stretching some way up the arm. The first is the “ell”, a word of Germanic origin related to Latin ulna. The ell was a measurement from the tip of the middle finger to, naturally, the elbow, which, of course, takes its name from the ell. The second is the “cubit”, which denotes exactly the same length as the ell. In fact, cubit comes from Latin cubitum, “elbow”, which is actually related to Greek kybos, “space above a cow's hip”, and also to English “hip” itself. So there we have it: the ell is the same as the cubit in length, the elbow is the same as the cubitum as a joint, and the ell is related to the ulna, the bone leading from the elbow to the hand, while “cubit” is from the same root as “hip”. So in a real sense, you're elbow's connected to your hip bone.

The third is actually something which could be alternately the same measurement as a cubit, alternately a weapon, and which ends up as being not so much a measurement as an indicator of size. The Greek pygme, related to Latin pugnus, meant “fist”, which, of course, usually only exists at times of anger and conflict. A pygme also represented the same length as a cubit, and this meaning was applied to a mythical race of people known in Greek as pygmaioi, reputed to be only the height of a cubit, thereby giving us modern “pygmy”.

Another interesting aspect of body terminology is the way we can use parts of the body to make things happen. Here are some which may never have occurred to you. First up, what do you say when someone sneezes? Why, "bless you", of course. However, if you knew the original meaning of “bless”, you might not be so willing to say it. We think of a blessing as being a priest making the sign of the cross, but 1500 odd years ago it was something quite different. The pagan Germanic tribes which came to Britain at the fall of the Roman empire engaged in animal sacrifice, and blessing involved sprinkling blood on the object to be sanctified. The ancestor of “bless”, Old English bloedsian, meant “sanctify with blood”. When Christianity arrived, the practice changed but the term remained. What's more, the French blesser, “wound”, is from a Frankish root similar to Old English bloedsian. Both roots referred to the letting of blood - in war in French, in religion in English. You could say that Stephen King's Carrie was blessed in an English way with pig's blood, and returned the favour by treating her teachers and schoolmates to quintessentially French blessures.

On the subject of religion, have you ever thought about the way many children are taught to adhere to religious dogma? One way to ensure they learn and never forget the teaching is to inculcate it into them. Now, you might think that violence is not the best way to teach, but “inculcate” tells another story, whether literal or metaphorical. The Latin calx meant “heel”, and inculcare meant literally “stamp in”, the idea being that once stamped in, knowledge would remain. However, if a child did not want to be inculcated, he or she might do a little stamping of their own by being recalcitrant. Calx also produced the verbs calcitrare, “kick”, and recalcitrare, “kick back”, rather like a horse or a donkey. “Recalcitrant” was borrowed from Latin in the 19th C with the meaning of “obstinately disobedient”, rather like a kicking donkey. Stamping and kicking - who would have thought that the education process could be so violent?

If all that stamping and kicking has taken it out of you, have a rest. And what better way to have a rest than to doss for a while? And while you're dossing, looking up at the stars or the ceiling, you can think of the best way to doss and why it's called dossing at all – because you're on your back, which, of course, is dos in French, from Latin dorsum. So there you have it – if you lie on your front, you can't be termed a dosser. Another thing you can do with your back is to write on it, or rather, let someone else write on it, especially if you want to be a bank cheque. “Endorse” comes from the Old French endosser, “put on the back (of)” (with the spelling changed later). So if you're a politician running for office, you can always get important supporters to endorse you, perhaps with a giant stamp on your back saying “The Next President”.

Of course, if you do run for office, you'll have to persuade enough people to give you their vote to make sure you win. So you'll spend days consulting the polls, until the day when the real poll comes – the only one that matters. That's when everyone lines up and officials count their heads, usually one per person. OK, that would be rather time-consuming and impractical in a modern democracy, but that's how polls started out – head counts. “Poll” in Middle English originally referred to the head, or just the hair of the head, before it came to mean “head count”, and later “election”. The old meaning can still be seen in that much-reviled term “poll-tax”, literally a tax per head of population. Now, let's move from the head to the other end of the body, at least for quadrupeds - the tail. Latin coda, “tail” has produced three words in modern English. The tail-end of a musical piece is termed the “coda”; the tail that you wait in is a “queue”, which comes via French; and the tail that you use to hit balls on a table is a “cue”, an alternative spelling of “queue”.

One other part of the body can prove useful in amusing the public, as long as you know how to use it for speaking - your belly, venter in Latin. That's precisely what a ventriloquist does – speak from the belly, though in a sense, we all speak from the belly from time to time, with sounds that say “I can't eat another morsel”.

Part 3 coming up soon.

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