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.

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.

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.