Friday, 25 October 2013

Things you never knew about your body parts, Part 3

Welcome to the last instalment of the trilogy that is “Things you never knew about your body parts”. Let's start at the top, not the very top, but a bit down, at the mouth. We think of the mouth as being something which can open to let food and drink enter and words exit, but actually, “mouth” started out a bit further down as something usually quite prominent and certainly not open. The original root of “mouth” basically meant “jutting out”, giving a number of derivations that we use in modern English. The Latin word most closely related to “mouth” is mentum, chin, which suggests that “mouth” actually started life out as the chin, and somehow climbed up the face a little. Other words related to “mouth” and mentum are Latin mons, which gives us “mountain”, and minari, which means “threaten”, on the basis that something jutting out is threatening. So there you are – your mouth was once a chin and could have been a mountain and even a threat.

On the subject of chins, one word underscores the effects of culture on language, which might lead to the strangest formations, often ending up having no basis in reality. The Russian for “chin” is podborodok. Apart from being quite long, it doesn't seem particularly interesting, until you understand that the pod bit means “under” and the borod bit means “beard” (yes, it's historically the same word). Essentially, then, podborodok means literally “underbeard”, suggesting that the original word for “chin” was lost and that beards were more significant than what was under them. Strangely enough, a woman also has a podborodok even though she doesn't have a boroda (at least, the vast majority of women don't). But then Russian always did do strange things with the body, with claws for hands and nails for feet.

Now let's take a wander around the body for the next three words, all of which have transcended the mere physical and have come to describe a variety of feelings and emotions. First of all, when we think of a situation in which everyone agrees and gets on well, we have “harmony”, from Greek harmonia, literally “joining together”, from harmos, “joint”, related to English “arm”. And what surrounds all our joints and bones? Flesh, of course, which is sarx in Greek. What's that got to do with feeling? Well, if you want to strip the flesh off the bone you use the verb sarkazein, which also came to mean “sneer, speak bitterly”, sort of metaphorically tearing strips off someone. This gave us sarkasma, or “sarcasm”, which doesn't really do much for harmony when it's used.

The last of the trio is by far the most intense and uncontrolled emotion that most people will ever endure, though, actually, only half of the human race should really be able to suffer it, or so the other half would maintain, and that's “hysteria”. So which half can suffer it? The Greek for womb was hystera, and we see this in the medical procedure “hysterectomy”, in which the womb is removed. The ancient Greeks believed that each emotion was associated with a specific part of the body, and as such, hysteria was held to arise in the womb, and therefore to be associated only with females. So there we are – only women could become hysterical.

So we come to the last of these meanderings through terms for parts of the body, finishing up with the region just below the womb, in fact. Under sixteens need to turn off their computers and go to bed now. Firstly, we will talk of avocados and witnesses. What do they have in common? Well, in a manner of speaking, a great deal, as they refer to the same thing, or rather, same two things. “Avocado” is the Spanish representation of the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, a fruit which the Spanish first encountered when they landed in Mexico and trekked up to Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs gave it that name for its resemblance to the real ahuacatl, “testicle”. Now, “testicle” is interesting in its own right, as it comes from Latin testiculum, “little witness”, from testis, “witness”, which we can see in “testify” and “testimony”. The idea behind the little witnesses was that they testified to a man's virility.

Still in the same area, let's turn to the two other features which were named after certain other things they resembled. Originally, Latin penis meant “tail”, but it was also used to refer to the male appendage, which, naturally, is the one we use today. Funnily enough, you can use one derivation of penis to sketch a picture, as “pencil”, from penicillus, actually means “little brush”, since brushes were long and hairy, just like tails. Now, the pencil may be mightier than the sword, but the sword gets put into the sheath. And what is the Latin for sheath? Yes, you've guessed - vagina. And on that note, this little journey round the body comes to an end.

No comments:

Post a Comment