Autonomic, from the Greek auto, self, and nomo, law: thus, "self-governing". We know now that the autonomic system is not self-governing, but back in 1898 when the word was coined by the English physiologist John Langely, it was thought that it operated independently of the CNS.


John Newport Langley 1852-1925

Langley also named the parasympathetic division of the autonomic system. Para is Greek for beside; Langley's coinage was based on the observation that parasympathetic nerves emerge from the brain and sacral segments of the spinal cord, and thus to either side of the regions of the cord from which sympathetic fibers arise (i.e. the thoracic and lumbar segments).

The term sympathetic was first used by the Danish anatomist Jacob Winslow in the early 1700's, but only in reference to the chain of ganglia that run along each side the vertebral column. A definition of sympathy used in medicine at the time was that of a relationship between organs in which the condition of one could effect the condition of others. The chain and its nerves were observed by Winslow to be involved in such "sympathies". Now called the sympathetic trunk, the chain ganglia are considered but one of the structural components of the sympathetic division of the autonomic system.

It wasn't until the 19th century, as a result of work done by a number of different anatomists and physiologists, that sympathetic took on its present anatomic and physiological meanings.


Myelin, from the Greek myelos, marrow.

Myelin was discovered and the word coined in 1854 by the great German pathologist Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902). His investigations revealed that a fatty substance apparently identical to what could be found in the brain and spinal cord was also in every non-CNS organ he examined. His inspiration for the name of this material was the "nerve marrow" as it was called at the time: the white matter of the spinal cord seen within the spinal column's vertebral canal (and so named because of its resemblance to bone marrow within the medullary cavities of long bones).

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Rudolph Virchow.
Photo from the National Institutes of Health via Wikipedia

Virchow was one of the first to propose that disease occurs at the cellular level ("think microscopically" he frequently told his students). He was an early advocate of the scientific methodology in medical research and using such tools elucidated the mechanism of pulmonary thromboembolism, coining the words "thrombus" and "embolism" in the process. He fundamentally rejected the concept that some type of magical "vital principle" was necessary for living systems, a mechanistic philosophy radical for his times.

He was also social iconoclast, campaigning for the rights of the downtrodden and disenfranchised in oppressive Bismarck-era Prussia. Much of his political motivations stemmed from his unbending belief that disease was as much due to dire social factors as it was to those biological, and that democratization of society was the best way to improve the health of the poor.

In 1848 he was active in a failed revolution against the government, escaping punishment only because of strong support from his peers. In 1849, in large part because of this support, he became a professor at the University of Würzburg where five years later he did his work on myelin.

In 1902, at age 81, Virchow leaped from a moving streetcar, broke his hip, and died from complications.


Insula, directly from insula, Latin for island; the brain's clandestine lobe, located deep to the lateral sulcus of the cerebrum. When exposed after removal of overlying portions of the frontal and parietal lobes, it looks like an island of cerebral cortex. It was named and first described by the German anatomist Johann Christian Reil in 1796 (he also coined the word psychiatry). The now rarely used alternative term the for the insula is the Island of Reil.

The left insula (highlighted in brown)
Modified from http://www.biocfarm.unibo.it
It almost seems like the insula's location kept it hidden from researchers over the years: only now are some of its fascinating functions coming to light. One of its jobs is to link sensations to emotions; Consequently, pain promotes anger, a lover's kiss causes joy. It is also involved in recognizing the emotional content of music, be it a Mozart minuet or a Jimi Hendrix solo. When considering this last function in particular it is not surprising that the insula is one of the most recently evolved structures of the human brain.

Some other words derived from the Latin insula, all invoking an island in one sense or another: insular, insulate, isolate, peninsula (pene is Latin for almost), and insulin (because it is produced by cells in the pancreatic islets, aka the islets of Langerhans).


Henle, Friedrich Gustav Jakob (born July, 1809, died in 1885); German anatomist.

Possibly the greatest anatomist of the 19th century, Henle made fundamental contributions to our understanding of human structure, particularly at the microscopic level. Indeed, medical historians consider his contributions to histology on par with Andreas Vesalius's work in gross anatomy.

He provided important insights into the anatomy the lens, retina, exocrine glands, the lacrimal canal, the cochlea & vestibule of the inner ear, and epithelium -- he was the first to describe squamous, cuboidal, columnar, and ciliated epithelial cells. He is best known though for the tubular loops in the kidney that he was first to characterize, known forever hence as the loops of Henle.

He also conducted some of the first physiological investigations of hair development and smooth muscle function in blood vessels.

In his seminal 1840 paper Pathologische Untersuchungen ("Pathological Researches") he was the first to provide a clear pronouncement that particular micro-organisms can cause specific diseases, a concept that his student, Rober Koch paid particular attention to and later expanded upon in his immortal Koch's postulates, sometimes referred to as the Koch-Henle postulates.

Henle's interests and talents extended far beyond the laboratory. He was a politically active liberal, a poet, and an accomplished violinist who included the great composer Felix Mendelssohn as one of his good friends (the very familiar wedding march and wedding recessional melodies are from Mendelssohn's pen).

Henle died from renal sarcoma at age 76.

From the Clendening History of Medicine Library and Museum, University of Kansas Medical Center


Hyoid, from the Greek letter Υ (upsilon) and eidus, Greek for shape; thus, "shaped like an upsilon".

The derivation of the word is better understood if you think of hyoid as "Υ-oid", The "Υ", however, is not a reference to the shape of the upper case upsilon, Υ (nor to the letter "y" of course), but rather to the lower case form of upsilon, υ.

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Upslion, lower and upper cases

Its exclusive anatomical use is for the υ-shaped hyoid bone in the neck and related structures such as the sternohyoid and stylohyoid muscles. It is one of the oldest words in anatomy, first used by the seminal Greek anatomist Herophilus around 300 B.C.
The hyoid bone

If hyoid means Υ-oid, where did the initial "h" come from? In the spoken language of the ancient Greeks, whenever upsilon was used as the first letter in a word, it was always preceded by "rough breathing", i.e., the "h" sound, and was so indicated in Greek writing by a small mark in front of the letter (i.e. 'Υ). Scholars of Greek later replaced the mark with the letter "h". This pattern is seen in many other Greek-derived words, such as those that begin with hyper- and hypo-.

The hyoid is the only bone in the body that does not articulate directly with other bones. It is a favorite of murder-mystery writers because it is evidence of strangulation when broken.


Infundibulum, Latin for funnel.

The uterine tubes and the hypothalamus both have infundibula which, like funnels, are hollow and tapered. The infundibulum of the uterine tube funnels the ovulated ovum deeper into the tube's lumen.

A Roman infundibulum (funnel). Based on a woodcut of a glass infundibulum found in the ruins at Pompeii.
Modified from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3rd Edition by Anthony Rich. 1874

The hypothalamic infundibulum connects with the pituitary, serving as a stalk that attaches the pituitary to the hypothalamus, both anatomically and physiologically. Its hollow center is a continuation of the third ventricle. Calling this structure the infundibulum made eminent sense to the early anatomists, not just because of form but also for perceived function: it was thought for more than a millennium that mucus from the brain's ventricles was funneled through the infundibulum into the pituitary (which, it was believed, then secreted the mucus into the nasopharynx).

Other structures with infundibula include the ethmoid bone and gall bladder.

The pituitary (A) and infundibulum (B): an inaccurate representation. From De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543, by Andreas Vesalius.

The funnel shape of the infundibulum is much exaggerated and the pituitary is treated almost as an afterthought. Also shown are four ducts (C-F) through which the pituitary supposedly secreted mucus. These ducts in actual fact don't exist.

This is a excellent
example of how preconceived notions (i.e. the secretory function of the pituitary as discussed above) can influence observations, even when the observer is one of the greatest of all anatomists.



Ampulla: the expanded, usually terminal region of many anatomical ducts and canals. Named for a fancied similarity to an ampulla, the Latin name for a rounded flask with a narrow neck, used for storage of oils or perfumes.

The body's ampullae include the ampulla of the uterine (fallopian) tube, the ampulla of the ductus (vas) deferens, the ampulla of Vater that empties bile and pancreatic secretons into the small intestine, and the ampullae of the semicircular canals (perhaps so-named because many ampulla flasks have semicircular handles).

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Ampulla of Saint Menas, ca 650 AD, Byzantine; Probably made at Abu Menas, near Alexandria, Egypt



Fibula, directly from the Latin fibula, a Roman clothing clasp or brooch: in essence, an ancient safety pin. The fibula and the tibia of the leg, when taken together, represent the clasp with the much thinner fibula representing the clasp's pin.

A Roman fibula (clasp) ca. 3rd-4th century A.D.
Anterior view of the fibula and tibia. The fibula, on the left, is the lateral (outer) bone of the lower leg. From: Andreae Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543, p.136

Fibula was not used in anatomy until it was introduced by Vesalius in the 16th century. The Greek name for the bone, perone (=pin), is the root word for such fibula-related structures as the peroneus muscles and the peroneal nerves (the terms fibularis and fibular are now favored over peroneus and peroneal by textbook writers, though the Terminologia Anatomica still lists both sets of terms).

It is not uncommon for the bone to be misspelled as "fibia" by beginning students and for whom this mnemonic would be useful: FibuLa, Lateral bone of the Lower Leg.

Unrelated but interesting: In the early days of the Roman Empire the prepuces (foreskins) of actors and singers were pinned with fibulae (the clasps) in the belief that sexual intercourse damaged the voice. This practice was eventually ended, I suppose when it was noticed that many prospective actors and singers were choosing less risky career paths.


Iris, directly from the Greek iris, rainbow. Aristotle also used the term to describe the bright halos that sometimes encircle the moon.

Rainbows and halos: no wonder the Danish anatomist Jacob Winslow, in 1721, chose to call the pigmented, circular arrangement of smooth muscle that surrounds the pupil the iris. Though it was with this coinage that the term become firmly established in anatomy, the Greek author and physician Rufus of Ephesus also called this part of the eye the iris a full 1,600 years earlier, apparently unbeknownst to Winslow (Ephesus also named the optic chiasm).

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A lunar iris, per Aristotle

Iris was a Greek goddess before being a rainbow: a messenger among the Greek pantheon. Iris became associated with rainbows because they were a symbol of good news in Greek society and she apparently brought her fair share of welcome reports.

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The Goddess Iris.
Detail from ancient Greek clay vase. Photo from Sotheby's London F15923. © Sotheby's


Posting will be intermittent over the next few days as I am out in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with limited internet access.....


Molar, from the Latin mola, mill or millstone. The upper and lower molars, grinding as we chew, work like millstones.

Mola also gave us immolate, to kill or destroy. The original meaning of immolate was sacrificial killing; its derivation stems from the ancient custom of sprinkling victims with salted, ground grain.

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One example of an ancient Roman mola. Donkeys (or slaves) would push the handles to turn the millstone and grind the grain, poured in at the top, against the circular stone base. The device pictured is about 5 feet high. Drawing from www.dl.ket.org/latin2/mores/slaves/countryslave.htm

Upper and lower first molars. Notice the matching contours of the crowns' surfaces, an adaptation for grinding action. Adpated from dentistry.uic.edu/depts/oralb/OCCREVIS.htm


Clavicle, the collarbone: the slender, sigmoid-shaped bone that links the manubrium of the sternum to the acromion of the scapula. From the Latin clavicula, ‘small key’, a translation of the Greek kleidion.

The word was coined in the 12 century by the translators of the 10 century Persian physician Abu Ali Sina (his name was often latinized as Avicenna) whose works were a mainstay of European medicine the until the mid-17th century. Ali Sina used alchiab, ("the key") for collarbone, this from his own translations of Latin anatomy treatises from ancient Rome.

Ala Sina's translators returned to the Latin, renaming alchiab the clavicula, the diminutive of clavis (key).

But why key? A common tale is that the Romans likened the collarbone to a clavis simply because of similarity in appearance. However, it was probably not Roman door keys, which do not resemble clavicles, that were alluded to but rather S-shaped lift-latches, a primitive type key type first seen the Iron Age and common in Rome.

A Roman lift-latch ca 350 BC:
designed to allow a door-latch

to be lifted through a hole in the door.
It acted as a simple key. England, ca 350 BC

It has also been suggested that the relationship of the clavicle to a key is metaphorical, given that the bone "locks" the shoulder girdle to the trunk. Of course neither of these explanations are mutually exclusive, as the key shape lends itself nicely to the metaphor.

Perhaps though, "key" was a mistranslation by Ali Sina: yet another explanation is that the name comes from the resemblance of the bone to a toy, a curved stick called a clavicula or clavis trochi used by Greek and Roman children to roll, or trundle, a hoop.

A clavicula or clavis trochi, a child's toy for trundling a wheel in ancient Greece and Rome; from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3rd Edition by Anthony Rich. 1874

A minority view holds that the term has nothing to do with keys or trundles or metaphors but rather is named for the clavicle's resemblance to the sinuous tendrils of some plants. The Latin word for tendril is also clavicula.

The original Greek kleidion lives on in sternocleidomastoid muscle

Anatomically unrelated: the clavichord was the first keyboard instrument.


Muscle comes from the Latin for "little mouse", musculus (the diminutive of mus).

Two explanations are usually given for the peculiar transformation of mouse to muscle. One has it that the movement of a contracting muscle under the skin is reminiscent of a mouse moving beneath a rug; The biceps brachii is typically used as an example. The other explanation is that, in the abstract at least, some muscles look a bit like mice: specifically those with long, thin tendons (the mouse tails) emerging from oblong muscle bodies. The muscles of the forearm are among many that are illustrative.

The second explanation is as plausible as the first, no neither seem compelling, but why any relatively large muscle would be called a little mouse in the first place remains a mystery. (A sense of humor on the part of early anatomists cannot be ruled out!). In any event, it could easily have been muscles of dissected animals and not humans that were were the inspiration for the name.

Interestingly, mussel (the mollusk) is also derived from musculus, perhaps because some species have the shape of a mouse ear.

The difference in spelling between "muscle" and "mussel" is due to the different post-Latin paths taken by musculus. Muscle comes to us through French; mussel came out of Old English.

The little mice of the anterior forearm: some imagination may be required. From Henry Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body, 20th ed. (1918) via Bartleby.com

A couple of musse
ls doing their best to impersonate mouse ears. From www.town.barnstable.ma.us


The acetabulum of the pelvic bone, the socket of the ball-and-socket hip joint, is Latin for “little vinegar cup”, deriving from acetum, vinegar.

Given their predilection for vinegar as a condiment, acetabula were no doubt common on the dinner tables of the ancient Romans. The term eventually came to mean any wide mouthed vesicle of varying sizes and uses; acetabula were ultimately seen throughout the Roman Empire.

The term was first used in the anatomical sense by both Celsus and Pliny the Elder, Roman encyclopedists from the 1st century B.C.

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An acetabulum can be seen on the right hand side of the table in Da Vinci's "The Last Supper", shown here with color added in a close up of a woodcut. That's Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon, left to right, so the scholars say.

Acetabulum was a Roman unit of measurement as well, equal to about 275 ml (9 fluid oz).

Also from acetum: acetic acid; Vinegar is a solution of around 4% acetic acid


Malar - relating to the cheek. From the Latin mala, cheek. The only remaining use for the word in anatomy is seen in "malar lymph nodes". The "cheek bone" was once called the malar, but the Terminologia Anatomica now recognizes only the zygomatic bone.

Mala is probably derived from malus, Latin for apple; see the photo below for some evidence as to why apples and cheeks have been linked.

Definitely derived from malus is malic acid, first isolated in apple juice in the 18th century and responsible for the tart taste of apples, grapes, and rhubarb, among other foods.


Fascicle comes from fasciculus, the diminutive of the Latin word for bundle, fascis. The term is used to describe either bundles of axons within nerves or bundles of muscle cells within muscles (fascicles form the visible grain of a muscle as well as the strings of pot roast that may get stuck between your teeth).

Six fascicles, each a bundle of axons, seen in a cross-section of a small nerve about 1 mm in diameter.
From Wikipedia.com

In ancient Rome, the fasces (plural of fascis) was the name given to the official insignia of authority: an axe suspended over a bound bundle of birch rods. Through the centuries, fasces became a symbol for solidarity as well (an allusion to the bundle), eventually giving rise to the Italian word for a "united political group", fascio. One such organization, founded in Italy in 1919 by a newspaper editor named Benito Mussolini, was the Fasci di Combattimento, a collection of disgruntled Italian citizens that used the fasces as its logo.

In 1921 Mussolini and his group, by then a full-blown political party, had gained total control of Italy, in part through brutal suppression of the opposition. In the same year the English press, in reference to Mussolin's Fasci organization, began calling members of the movement fascists and its ruthless philosophy fascism. The names stuck.
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A ancient Roman fasces in a bas-relief at the Matte Palace in Rome. From A Dictionary of Roman Antiquities, by Antony Rich, Appelton, 1874.

A fasces was on the US dime from 1916-1945.


Coccyx, the tail bone, comes from kokkyx, Greek for cuckoo. One of the oldest words in anatomy, it was coined around 300 B.C. by Herophilus who, it is said, was inspired by the cuckoo's bill (probably that of the common cuckoo, Cuculus canorus). However, he was more likely taken by the anterior portion of the cuccko skull, which bears a greater resemblance to the coccyx, than just to the bill alone (see the photos below).


A more fanciful explanation of the link between cuckoo and coccyx was provided in the early 17th century by the French anatomist and surgeon Johann Riolan, who inexplicably insisted that the sound of flatus emanating from the coccygeal region was reminiscent of the call of a cuckoo and thus was the inspiration for Herophilus. Never mind that neither the male nor the female of any cuckoo species has a call that you'd confuse with flatulence (indeed, the classic sound of the cuckoo clock was patterned after the call of the male common cuckoo). Perhaps the professeur simply had a talented friend.

Nonetheless, the coccyx has been called the "whistle bone" for its proximity to the source of digestive tract toots.

Unrelated but interesting: The word "cuckold" (a man whose wife has cheated on him) also comes from cuckoo, derived from the female's nasty habit of laying eggs in nests not her own and thus tricking other birds into raising her young. Likewise, a cuckold may raise children that aren't his.

Image credits
coccyx from
The common cuckoo from
cuckoo skull

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