On the naming of the parts

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 25 November 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:1406
  1. P Burdett-Smith

    Anatomy is often seen as dry and dull, but with certification in Greek and Latin no longer a prerequisite for admission to medical school the anatomist can liven up his teaching with fascinating explanations of the origins of some of the estimated 10000 new words that the medical student must learn. The hand is a good example. The word hand is taken from the Latin manus, which also gave us manipulate and, perhaps aptly, manager. (The African for hand gave us banana.) The digits are named; pollex meaning thumb (not Pollux as in Castor and Pollux, as one student rather romantically thought). Index, which gives us indicate and the familiar index to books. Medius, no romance there. Annulus taken as meaning a ring, which is derived from annus, the year, as in annus horribilis. Its more literal meaning is a cycle, which is more appropriate to annus than annulus. Anulus can be spelt with one n, in which case it is derived from the Anglo Saxon anus, to sit. Thus anulus fibrosis, anulus femoralis. Digiti minimi is functional, but more interesting is Auricularis as in the one that you put in your ear.

    A phalanx is a line of Roman soldiers (Phalanges Marmitium?) and a trapezium is a regular four sided figure in geometry. How many students will remember that a trapezoid is also a four sided figure but with only two parallel sides while the triquetral is a three sided figure? The scaphoid is an example of one of the few remaining Greek terms in anatomy. Meaning skiff or boat-like, its Latin equivalent is navicular, as in navy. This gives the opportunity to point out that the two bones are not quite equivalent, with the navicular derived from the primitive os centrale whereas the scaphoid is derived from the os centrale fused with the os radiale.

    The pisiform is not strictly a carpal bone, but a sesamoid bone in the tendon of flexor carpi ulnaris. Sesamoid is Greek for sesame seed, while pisiform means like a pea. So the pisiform is a sesame seed-like bone that is like a pea. Another Greek term in the hand is synovium. A combination of “syn” as in synthetic, made from, and ovium, an egg, the synovial fluid is in fact egg white.--P BURDETT-SMITH is a consultant in accident and emergency medicine in Liverpool

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