I recently heard from a young lady from New Jersey, a regular reader who asks if I would look at the etymology of the parts of the body. Thank you for your suggestion, Claire – hope you find the following list interesting!
At first I thought it made sense to work from head to toe (or even toe to head) but then remembered everyone is ostensibly a 12-year-old schoolboy and would instantly scroll down to the bits below the waist (or above it had I started with the toes). Hence so as not to reveal my ignorance as to where these bits should appear in such a list, I opted for alphabetical order.
Ankle – a word which came to English either through Old English or Old Scandinavian, both used this which suggests there is an unknown root common to both languages. Indeed that root is likely shared by Old French and Latin, for the term for that joint between the leg and the foot has the same source as ‘angle’ and that is exactly what it means.
Arm – much as the previous word here we can trace this back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘fit, join’. From this we can trace lines to German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, the Scandinavian tongues, and others all meaning ‘arm’. Note the original reference appears to be to the arm joint, also seen in the Greek derivative arthron ‘a joint’, Armenian armukn ‘elbow’, and Latin armus ‘shoulder’.
Brain – a Germanic word which seems only ever to have been used to mean ‘brain’ or perhaps ‘skull’. In his book of 2005 Anatoly Liberman suggests it is from the Proto-Indo-European root bhragno meaning ‘something broken’. (Any follow-up comments here are utterly pointless as I’ve already written them!)
Chest – was never used for the thorax until the sixteenth century, prior to that both males and females had a breast. The term chest came from Old English cest meaning ‘box, casket’, a suggestion the rib cage was a box containing a number of vital organs.
Chin – generally a Germanic word referring to the front of the jawbone, however earlier usage would be to the whole of the jawbone in many languages - one exception being Old Irish, where gin referred to the ‘mouth’.
Ear – the English version is somewhat different from those in other languages of the Germanic group which seem to prefer ore and ora and similar. All are derived from Proto-Indo-European ous seen as ‘perception’ in general rather than just hearing. It may also be of interest to learn nobody was ‘wet behind the ears’ before 1914 (the earliest known usage); however ‘the walls had ears’ by 1610; and as recently as the 1880s some medical practitioners believed piercing the ear lobes improved one’s sight.
Elbow – derived from two words, the first ell being ‘the length of the forearm’ with the addition of boga ‘bow, arch’ and related to bugan ‘bend’.
Foot – in the Indo-European group of languages, those of the Germanic arm prefer ‘foot’ whilst the Latin group opted for forms closer to the modern French pied – somewhere between these two is the original Proto-Indo-European ped all of which refer to the foot.
Finger – a Germanic word which can be traced to Proto-Indo-European penkwe meaning ‘five’ and for obvious reasons as there are five digits (the thumb was considered a finger until later)
Hand – the origin of this word is very uncertain, although we do know the Old English hond, from which it has come into Modern English, was also used to mean ‘power, control, possession’.
Head – this from Old English heafod also seen in a topographical sense to mean ‘the top of a slope’ which may well have been the original sense.
Knee – can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European where the root geneu also gave Greek gonia or ‘corner, angle’ and sharing an origin with the ankle.
Leg – a word which came to English quite late and first seen in the 13th century. Thought to have originated from a Scandinavian leggr it probably came from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to bend’.
Nail – first used in English solely for the fingernail, Old English naegl is related to terms in other languages of the Indo-European group where usage can refer to fingernails, toenails, claws, and even hooves.
Nose – can be traced to Proto-Indo-European nas which has given a name to this part of the face in all the Germanic languages, Sanskrit, Old Persian, Lithuanian, Latin, and many others. It’s original meaning is so ancient as to be unknown.
Neck – the origin depends upon whether we accept this as a purely Germanic term or not. This does not seem likely as hnecca is rarely used. It is possibly from a Proto-Indo-European knok meaning ‘ridge’ ad seen topographically in Old Irish cnocc Old Welsh cnwch and Old Breton cnoch, all three used to mean ‘hill’.
Shoulder – the origin of this Germanic term is uncertain, although it may possibly be related to the origin of ‘shield’ for obvious reasons.
Stomach – the bit at the lower end of the gullet began as stoma which, meaning ‘mouth’, referred to the other end.
Thigh – began as Proto-Indo-European root teuk or ‘to swell’, and probably came into usage in referring to the thickest part of the leg.
Thumb – as we have already seen ‘finger’ was applied to all five digits on the hand, this the case until around the 5th century. Again the term ‘thumb’ is Germanic and best seen in the Scandinavian reference meaning literally ‘the stout or thick (finger)’.
Toe – the Proto-Indo-European root here is deik which means ‘show’. This makes more sense when we understand many Indo-European languages used the same word for both toes and fingers.
Waist – this can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European root of wegs meaning ‘to increase’ (the first syllable of ‘augment’ has the same origin) and shows the figure would only get bigger from this the narrowest part of the body.
Wrist – a Germanic word which is traceable to a root of wreik meaning ‘turn’. Interestingly Old Norse rist was used to mean ‘instep’, as indeed it was in German where it also had the alternative meaning of ‘back of the hand’.