Concha (singular, rhymes with "tonka"; the plural, conchae, rhymes with "donkey") comes directly from the Latin word for shell, concha. The word was first used in human anatomy by the Greeks and Romans for various concavities reminiscent of the inside of an oyster shell. An example that survives is the concha of the external ear.

The most common use of term today is for the three pairs of turbinates in the nasal cavity, the superior, middle, and inferior nasal conchae. This usage was coined by Julius Casserius Placentinus, a 16th century Italian anatomist at the University of Padua who was inspired, not by Mediterranean oysters, but by the unusual (for Europeans) Caribbean conch shells brought back by Italian explorers of the new world. The nasal turbinates have a scrolled appearance somewhat like a conch.

An oyster opened up.

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The concha of the external ear.
Grey's Anatomy via Wikipedia


West Indian Fighting Conch (Strombus pugilis).


Bursa comes straight from the medieval Latin bursa (purse or bag) which in turn is directly from the Greek bursa (wineskin). As wineskins were produced from animal hides, bursa can ultimately trace its ancestry to the Greek word for ox, bovis, which also gives us "bovine".

During Roman times, bursa was used only as a proper name.

True to its Latin origins, a bursar is one who handles the "purse".

Bursa was first used in its anatomical sense by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (Weiss) in 1734, who coined the term "mucous bursae" for the lubricating sacs at joints. "Mucous" was dropped with the subsequent characterization of synovial fluid.

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A painting on an ancient Greek vase: a Satyros is depicted holding a rhyton (drinking horn) and bursa (wineskin). From the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine arts. Image at www.theoi.com/Gallery/T60.11.html


Histology, from the Greek word histos, cloth or woven material, and logos, study.

The father of modern histology and pathology is Marie F.X. Bichat, the brilliant French anatomist and physiologist. Although he characterized 21 different tissue types, most never described before, he chose to work sans microscope.

Bichat was one of the first to postulate that disease struck at the tissue and not the organ level of organization. He died of tuberculosis in 1802, just 31 years old, and is one of only 72 French scientists, engineers, or mathematicians to have his name engraved on the Eiffel Tower.

The word histology was coined in 1819 by one A. Mayer, a German anatomist, perhaps inspired by Bichat's naked-eye characterizations of various tissues as akin to cloth ("le tissu" in French); as noted above, the Greek word for cloth is histos.

Marie François Xavier Bichat 1771-1802
The father of modern histology and pathology


Mons, Latin for mountain or mound. It's only use in anatomy is in mons pubis ("pubic mound"), the raised, fatty pad that develops at puberty in females. Covering the hard symphysis pubis and pubic arch, it functions as a cushion during missionary-position sexual intercourse, with additional protection for the skin provided by a covering of pubic hair. The alternative term of mons veneris, ("Venus's mound", named after the Roman goddess of love) is no longer commonly used.

The male equivalent was humbly named the mons jovis (after Jove, aka Jupiter, the supreme Roman god). Perhaps because the male's very slight elevation is not worthy of a top-dog deity, the term has disappeared.

Left lateral view of the mons pubis.
Adapted from www.br.wikipedia.org

Other terms ultimately derived from mons include montane (existing in a mountain area) and Montana.


Heart comes from the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) word for heart, herte. It is typical that basic body part words used in everyday English do not have Latin or Greek roots.

That the heart is linked to emotions, though long recognized as a metaphorical relationship, is a notion shared by most if not all cultures, evident when comparing different languages. Cordial is "showing heartfelt friendliness" and is derived from cor, the Latin word for heart; a cordial welcome is a hearty welcome. Concord, in agreement, means "with the heart", and of course related to accord. Then there's discord, "apart from the heart" and its no surprise that courage also stems from cor.

Strangely, the word coronary is not related to cor. The word comes from the Latin corona, meaning garland, wreath, or crown.

It is thought by linguists that herte, cor, and kardia, the Greek word for heart, all are descendant from a Proto-Indo-European word used some 6000 years ago: kerd.

A peculiar phrase that has come down through the ages is the "cockles of one's heart". The common explanation for the linkage of these two seemingly disparate words is that cockle is just a play on the first half of the medieval Latin term for the heart's ventricles, cochlea cordis, (heart shell), and has nothing to do the with the cockle, a common edible European bivalve. However, one wonders if the etymologists have ever seen the meat of this mollusk, which does bear a resemblance to the opened-up ventricles of a mammalian heart.

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The meat of the European cockle

The ventricles of a
sheep heart


Anatomical snuff box, also known as the radial fossa: a triangular depression on the dorsal-lateral aspect of the hand just distal to the wrist joint. The lateral boundary is formed by the parallel tendons of the extensor pollicis brevis and abductor pollicis longus, and the medial boundary by the extensor pollicis. Thus, since all three tendons can be easily palpated when these muscles contract, the fossa is best seen and felt when one extends and abducts the thumb.

The scaphoid and trapezium bones form the floor and the styloid process of the radius forms the proximal border. The radial artery runs deep to the snuff box.

The name refers to the use of this area for holding and then snorting snuff, a powdered tobacco concoction.



Anatomical snuff box in action


Cubital, from the Latin cubitus, elbow; also: the distance from the elbow to the fingertips (a "cubit"), an ancient unit of measurement used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, among others. Depending on the time and place, it ranged between 18 and 25 inches, give or take.

Cubitus comes from cubo, Latin for "I lie down", supposedly because the ancient Romans were in the habit of resting on the forearm during meals.

Illustration by Gilbert Ford


Arachnoid, spider-like, derives from the Greek words for "spider" (arachne) and "like" (eidos). In anatomy, however, the word does not mean "like a spider" but rather "like a spider's web". The arachnoid membrane, the middle of the three membranes that envelope the brain and spinal cord, has a network of exceedingly fine filaments attached to its undersurface (traversing the sub-arachnoid space) that resembles the web of a spider.

The word ultimately goes to back to Arachne, a mythological maiden from Lydia (now western Turkey), who had the audacity to challenge the goddess Athene to a weaving contest. As a result of her brashness, she was killed by Athene (another version of the story has Arachne killing herself) and brought back to life as a spider, forever weaving and forever serving as a warning that mere mortals were not to challenge the immortal gods.



Lambdoid, from the Greek letter lambda (λ, lower case; Λ, uppercase); equivalent in sound to the "L" in English.

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Something that is lambdoid in appearance typically approximates the shape of the upper case lambda, though the only use of the term in anatomy is for the inverted-U shaped lambdoid suture of the skull between the parietal and occipital bones. It was named by Galen in the 2nd century A.D.

Posterior view of skull.
Photo by C. Carpenter

"The lambda" is name given to the point of junction of the lambdoid and sagittal sutures.


Buccinator, the muscle of the cheek; derived from buccina, Latin for trumpet, which in turn comes from bucca, cheek. Contraction of the muscle generates pressure when playing trumpets and other such instruments, though the muscle is not required to do so as the technique of the great jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillepsie attests.

More commonly, the muscle helps to keep food between the teeth.



Amygdala, Greek for almond. A mass of gray matter located within the temporal lobe of the cerebrum; It has the shape and approximate size of an almond kernel.


Among other activities, the amygdala functions in the processing of fear-related memories and helps to coordinate appropriate responses to fearful situations. In other words, using the amygdala, we learn to be afraid.

In humans, tumors in or near the amygdala have been associated with uncontrolled rage. Consider the tragic case of Charles Whitman, who, on an August day in 1966, stabbed to death his wife and mother and then climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower with a high-power rifle. For 90 minutes he gunned down people below, killing 14 and wounding 19 before being shot and killed by police. In a note found later he wrote about his "unusual and irrational thoughts” and wanted his body to be examined to see if a physical cause could be found for his "mental anguish". An autopsy was performed and a tumor compressing his amygdala was found. No proof of cause and effect but compelling evidence nonetheless of the role the amygdala plays in behavior.

Charles Whitman

McLeod, M. (2000). Charles Whitman: The Texas Tower Sniper. Crimelibrary.com/serial/whitman/index.htm

Adam’s apple: The anterior lump in the neck, formed by the laryngeal prominence of the thyroid cartilage, the largest cartilage of the larynx.

The Adam’s apple is usually larger in men, but the overall size of the thyroid cartilage, relative to body size, is the same in both men and women. What is often different is the angle that the two anterior, vertical plates (laminae) of the cartilage make in forming the prominence: in a typical man the angle is about 90 degrees; in most women, a shallower 120. Thus in men, the cartilage usually protrudes a bit more.

It is not uncommon for a woman to have an Adam's apple larger than a man.


Regarding the etymology of "Adam's apple", typical is the entry in Webster's 1913 dictionary stating the term "… is so called from a notion that it was caused by the forbidden fruit, (an apple) sticking in the throat of [Adam]." This is pure supposition, and in fact, the term Adam's apple arose through a very early mistranlation of the Hebrew for “male bump”, tappuach ha adam, that was used to denote this anatomical feature. This is understandable as adam is Hebrew for “man” and tappuach is very similar if not identical to an old Hebrew word for apple (although some modern scholars now translate tappuach as quince or citron and others consider the term a generic for any spherical citrus). There is no mention in Genesis that the "forbidden fruit" was actually an apple anyway.


Gubernaculum comes directly from Latin gubernaculum, helm or rudder, which is derived from the verb gubernare, to steer.

The port gubernaculum of an ancient Greek boat. The helmsman (yes, the gubernator) is controlling the starboard one as well.
from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3rd Edition by Anthony Rich. 1874

The gubernacula are the cords of connective tissue once thought to actively guide the descent of the fetal testes from the posterior abdominal wall into the scrotum during the last months of development. Although they are often described as fibrous cords with the implication of being tough supporting structures, they are in fact composed of soft mesenchymal tissue and probably "govern" the testicular descent passively by providing paths of least resistance (although in mice there is evidence that components the cords may contract in response to hormonal stimulation towards the end of the descent, hastening the entry of the testes into the scrotal sac).

The ovaries descend in the female as well, stopping in the pelvic cavity, and a homologous gubernaculum is also present. The more superior portion of the female gubernaculum develops into the ovary's suspensory ligament, and the inferior part, the ovarian ligament, which attaches the ovary to the uterus, and, a bit ironically, prevents further descent. The gubernaculum in the male turns into the gubernaculum testis, a ligament that attaches the testis to the floor of the scrotum.

Also derived from gubernare are the words gubernatorial and governor.

Atlas, the first cervical vertebra and the bone the skull rests upon. It is named after Atlas, the Greek god sentenced by Zeus to hold the earth on his shoulders, who in turn was named from the Greek atlao, "I endure".

The term was not used in anatomy until the era of Vesalius in the 16th century.

A Roman copy, in marble, of a Greek sculpture of Atlas, ca. 2nd century A.D.; on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. Interestingly, the globe is not the earth but the oldest known example of a celestial sphere (a globe that shows the constellations). The sculpture is known as the Farnese Atlas.


Pineal gland (also called the pineal body), from the Latin for pine cone, pinea; so named because of its shape.

The human pineal gland, 5-9 mm in length; drawing modified from www.hormone.org

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, physiologist and mathematician, believed the pineal to be the seat of the "rational soul", impressed as he was with the gland's central location in the brain (indeed, it is one of few brain structures that does not come in bilateral pairs or equal left and right halves). 1,400 years earlier, the Greek physician Galen thought it served as a valve to regulate the release of thoughts from storage sites in the brain, which he assumed to be the ventricles. It's actual, less glamorous function is as a neuroendocrine source of the hormone melatonin.

Pineals can be easy to spot on radiographs as they often contain opaque deposits of "brain sand" composed of calcium phosphate and other salts. The material accumulates with age; significance unknown.

piñata, commonly seen at Mexican birthday parties and other celebrations, also gets its name from the Latin pinea, albeit in a round-about way. Literally piñata means "pot", from the Italian pignatta, which in turn comes from the Italian word for pine cone, pigna, a direct descendant of pinea.


Ganglion, from the Greek gagglion, tumor or swelling. Hippocrates, in the 5th century B.C., used the term for any growth that could be felt beneath the skin. This use continues today, but only for the "ganglion cysts" of tendons or joint capsules most frequently seen at the wrist.

A ganglion cyst

The Roman physician Galen, in the 2nd century, used the term initially for abnormal swellings associated with nerves but ultimately for normal "swellings" of nervous system structures as well, the sympathetic ganglia in particular.

1700 years later, in the 19th century, it was determined that the sympathetic ganglia were composed of large collections of neuron cell bodies, and the definition of ganglia soon expanded to include all such structures outside the brain and spinal cord, including the prevertebral sympathetic ganglia, numerous parasympathetic ganglia, and the dorsal root ganglia of the spinal nerves.

Collections of neuron cell bodies within the central nervous are usually called nuclei and not ganglia, though the use of the term persists in the basal ganglia of the cerebrum.

Other than for the ganglion cysts, the term is no longer used for abnormalities.


Hippocampus, the half horse/half fish sea creature of Greek mythology that pulled Poseidon's chariot; from hippo, horse and kampos, monster.

The Hippocampus. Graphic published in European Neurology 2005;53:171-178

Anatomically the hippocampus is a limbic system structure deep in temporal lobe of the cerebrum; it is crucial for the processing of long-term memory. The sinuous arrangement of its gray and white matter, when seen in a frontal section, is suggestive of the curves of the Hippocampus's tail, inspiring Giulio Cesare Aranzio, an eminent Italian anatomist of the 16th century, to give it the name.

The hippocampus is one of the first structures to show degenerative changes in Alzheimer's disease.

Hippocampus is also the genus name of the fish known as the seahorse.
Hippocampus in a frontal section:
the dentate gyrus is the
head, the subiculum is the tail.
Click here for a larger view
From Frank Gaillard Designs


Atrium (pl. atria), one of two entry chambers of the heart. In ancient Rome, an atrium was a home's main living space, distinguished by a large open skylight that let in light and rain water (the water was collected in a central pool). Smoke from a open-hearth fireplace left through the opening, but absent a true chimney, the room had a sooty appearance. Indeed, atrium is probably derived from ater, the Latin word for black.

Given their resemblance to the Roman room, particularly the open design, early Christians used the term atria for the courtyards that served as basilica entries; thus the link to the concept of an entrance into another room or space.

The anatomical use of atria is relatively recent, apparently coined by English doctors in the 1870s. The chambers had been called the auricles and continued to be so well into the 20th century. Auricle is now properly reserved for the ear-like appendages of the atria.

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The entrance atrium (foreground) of Santa Sabina Basilica on Aventine Hill in Rome.


Manubrium, directly from the Latin for handle, manubrium, which in turn comes from the Latin words manus, hand, and hibrium (from the verb habeo, "I hold").

Since the times of the Romans the sternum has been likened to a sword, the gladius of the gladiator. Its "handle", the manubrium, is the sternum's most superior region, located just below the neck. A sharp tip, the xiphoid process (which comes from xyphos, Greek for sword) is at the inferior end. Between the two structures is the body, an older term for which is gladiolus (Latin for "little sword.

A related etymology: in some species at least, the cluster of flowers, or inflorescence, of the genus gladiolus resembles a short sword; an ancient name for the plant was xiphium. It is also known as the "sword lily".

A typical sword, or gladius, of ancient Rome. (Drawing by the Swiss artist Gerzi, 2004).
From turbosquid.com

The sternum; using the sword analogy note how the manubrium is more akin to the knob (pommel) at the end of the sword's handle rather than the handle itself, and that the facets on the body suggest the handle's finger-grips. From www.pdh-odp.co.uk

Until well into the 20th century the handle of the malleus (one of the auditory ossicles) was often referred to as the manubrium.

A common name for the radius among the Romans was the "manubrium manus", or handle of the hand, as it is the radius and not the ulna that articulates with the carpals.

Other words derived from manus and all related in some way to the hand: manual, maneuver, manuscript, manipulate, and manufacture.


Incus, the Latin word for anvil; the middle of the three auditory ossicles. Vesalius (1514-1564), though probably not the first to note the bone's anvil-like shape, did give it its name.

An anvil typical of the Roman era, here on a tree stump; the anvil of Vesalius's time, more than a thousand years hence, was basically unchanged in appearance. A woodcut copy of an Roman engraving, modified from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3rd Edition by Anthony Rich. 1874

The incus (5 X 7 mm) and a dime (18 mm in diameter). The incus drawing is modified from www.anatomyatlases.org


Coracoid, from the Greek korone, crow, and -oides, shape.

The coracoid process of the scapula was named by the Galen in the 2nd century A.D for its resemblance to the beak of a crow or raven, or so the story goes. However, the process doesn't really resemble anything of the sort: the coracoid has a prominent hook and a blunt tip; neither feature is seen in a corvid's beak. It quite possible that Galen's inspiration instead was the hooked appearance of the process: korone was also used for any number of structures with bent shapes, including door handles and, in the Illiad, for the curved keel at the end of the boat bows.

"Coronoid", as in the coronoid processes of the mandible and ulna, is also derived from korone. But like the coracoid above, these structures too may have been named, by persons unknown, for their slightly hooked shape.

Lateral view of
the left scapula;
Modified from www.scoi.com/sholanat.htm


Cancer, the Latin word for crab.

Although often attributed to Galen, it was the Greek physician Hippocrates, around 400 B.C., who first likened malignant tumors to a crab, noting specifically the appearance of a large breast tumor as seen just under the skin: swollen, subcutaneous veins (the crab's legs) radiating from a large, elevated, central mass (the crab's body). He called the affliction karkinos, Greek for crab, which was translated by the Romans into Latin, cancer.

Given the need for an abundant blood supply, a number of different cancerous tumors will take on this form, particularly in their advanced stages.

Cancer in a kidney.
From Human Diseases
by Ruth Tannehille-Jones and Marianne Neighbors;
Published in 1999,
Thomson Delmar Learning.


Tragus, from the Latin tragos, goat: the skin-covered, cartilaginous flap just anterior to the opening of the external ear canal. "Covering your ears" with your fingers is done by pressing the tragus down over the opening.

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Photo by Tony Boon
The strange etymology seems to be related to the tufts of hair that will often appear on the tragus, particularly in older men, though just how this hair is linked to goats is a matter of conjecture. The most common explanation is that an imaginative ancient Greek anatomist, name unknown, was reminded of the hair on the chin of a goat (the one problem with this idea: the hair on the tragus really doesn't look much like mental goat hair). Or, perhaps, its the stiff, bristly texture typical of the hair that's so caprine. Or, as it's been suggested, in particularly luxuriant cases these hairs might remind one of the animal-like (i.e. hairy) ears of the satyr, the half-man, half-goat of Greek mythology. None of the explanations are compelling, but they're all we got.

Another name for the tragus-hair is barbula, the diminutive of barbus, Latin for beard and the ancestral root of barber, barb, and beard.

Goat or satyr? Barbula on the tragus of a middle-aged man.
Photo by C. Carpenter

A satyr from an ancient Roman woodcut: hardly the image of the sexy satyr usually depicted, but the hairy ear is nice (yes, that is an ear and not the side-hair of a baldpate). Adapted from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 3rd Edition by Anthony Rich. 1874