Sunday, 22 October 2017


Never one to simply learn names, I have to know the origin, and having someone in the family who finds the skeleton the most fascinating part of everyone, I thought it might be interesting to see where the correct names originate. Whilst most of us would refer to it as the collarbone, I begin with the clavicle which not only comes first alphabetically but also happens to be the only bone I've broken to date which isn't in my hands or feet.

Clavicle - came to English from the French clavicule which not only meant 'collarbone' but also 'small key'. Tracing this back to the Latin clavicula, where the meaning was 'small key, bolt', it is from clavis or 'key' and shows this bone was seen as being that which fastened the shoulder together.

Coccyx - directly from the Greek kokkyx or 'cuckoo' as the Greek physician Galen believed this bone resembled the beak of a cuckoo.

Femur - a word derived from Latin, the etymology of which is completely unknown. Clearly this is an ancient term for the longest and strongest bone in the human body, for it is known as the femur in English, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Fibula - another taken directly from Latin, where fibula meant 'clasp, brooch, bolt, peg, pin' and taken from the root figere 'to drive in, insert, fasten' which is itself related to the modern 'fix'. The bone is seen as such because it resembles what we would today call a safety pin.

Humerus - this bone of the upper arm is again taken directly from the Latin, itself derived from umerus 'shoulder' and from the Proto-Indo-European root omeso which also meant 'shoulder'.

Mandible - again from Latin where mandibula meant 'jaw' and related to mandere 'chew' and derived from the Proto-Indo-European root mendh 'chew'.

Maxilla - another directly from the Latin where maxilla also meant 'upper jaw'. It is derived from mala meaning 'jaw, cheekbone'.

Metacarpus - is also Latin but here Modern Latin derived from the Greek metakarpion. Here meta 'between' or 'next after' and derived from Proto-Indo-European me 'in the middle', together with Greek karpos 'wrist'.

Metatarsus - as above the meta element can be traced to Proto-Indo-European me 'in the middle'. Here with Greek tarsos 'ankle, sole of the foot, rim of the eyelid' and originally used to refer to 'a flat surface for drying'. Ultimately this is from Proto-Indo-European ters 'to dry'.

Patella - another Latin word with the same meaning of 'kneecap' but was also used to mean 'pan' as was the root patina. Ultimately both come from Proto-Indo-European pet-ano 'to spread', itself referring to the flattened or dished shape of the pan or kneecap.

Pelvis - easy to see by looking at the bones of the pelvic girdle as to why it comes from the Latin pelvis 'basin'. Ultimately this is from Proto-Indo-European pel 'container', which has also given us Greek pelex 'helmet', Sanskrit palavi 'vessel', Greek pelike 'goblet, bowl', and the word full common to both Old Scandinavian and Old English and meaning 'cup'.

Radius - has the same origin as the spoke of a wheel or that part of a circle, however just what that origin may be is unknown.

Rib - a Germanic word which can be traced to Proto-Indo-European rebh meaning 'to roof, cover'. Hence if the curved bone is seen as a rafter supporting a roof, clearly the bone's shape has been likened to that and not vice versa as a certain book may suggest.

Scapula - the Latin scapula means 'shoulder'. It was also used to mean 'spades, shovels' and this suggests the bone being used as such, albeit these of animals. Such a scraping motion when using these tools can be seen in the Proto-Indo-European root skep 'to scrape'.

Sternum - comes from the Greek sternon 'chest, breast' as well as 'breastbone'. It is related to the Greek stornyai 'to spread out' which is also seen in the original Proto-Indo-European stere 'to spread'.

Tibia - the Latin tibia means not only the 'shinbone' but also used to mean 'pipe, flute'. The instrument would have been made from said bone, and the etymological trail stops here.

Ulna - Latin again where ulna meant 'elbow' and was also a measure of lenth. This cominge from Proto-Indo-European el-ina which also meant 'elbow, forearm'.

Vertebra - in Latin meant 'joint or articulation of the body' as much as it did 'backbone'. This comes from the Latin vertere 'to turn' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European wer also 'to turn' and thus seeing the backbone as a virtual hinge for the body.

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