Roll up your sleeve past your bicep, bend your arm at the elbow, and squeeze your bicep muscle. Now, relax and contract again. And relax. What do you see? Movement, right? Do you see a little mouse?
Well, some anatomist did when the word ‘muscle’ was coined; it comes from the Latin word ‘musculus’ – meaning little mouse named such because the movement of a muscle is reminiscent of a little mouse moving under a blanket.
In fact, a number of terms for our anatomy have animals hiding within.
The coccyx, commonly called the tailbone, is the small triangle-shaped bone at the base of the spinal column and named for its resemblance to the beak of a cuckoo bird. ‘Coccyx’ comes from Greek for cuckoo bird.
The cornea, the transparent membrane covering the surface of the eye comes from the Latin word ‘cornu’, meaning “animal horn,” because – delicate though it seems – this tissue is surprisingly hard, like an animal’s horn.
Another anatomy term comes from cornu. Keratin is the tough protein that is the main structural component of hair and nails in humans and hooves, claws, feathers, beaks, and horns in other animals.
The cochlea, a spiral-shaped cavity of the inner ear is called such because it looks like a snail shell: snail is ‘kokhlos’ in Greek.
And if you think you’re going to have trouble remembering all of this, you’re underestimating your hippocampus, the part of our brain crucial for long-term memory. The hippocampus was a mythological sea creature who was part horse – ‘hippo’ is Greek for “horse” — and part fish. An Italian anatomist thought this area was suggestive of the curves of the Hippocampus’s tail, and so it was named.
We also have a few less scientific terms for parts of our anatomy inspired by animals: cowlick, dewlap, crow’s feet, buck teeth, harelip, goatee, ponytail, and pigtails.
These and many more animal-related words reflect how deeply rooted animals are in our consciousness, in our history, in our lives – and deep in our animal bones.
With a Perspective, this is Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is an author and animal activist living in Oakland.