Who named our bones? And what were they thinking?

All of our 200+ bones have names, which facilitates describing them when we cannot actually hold them or point directly at them. It might be easier to remember the names if they were familiar ones like Robert, Sally, and Kevin, but no such luck. Latin was the original language of science, so the bones received Latin names. Some of those were derived from Greek. All were purely descriptive and widely understood, providing that you spoke Latin. For example, the shoulder blade is mostly flat and triangular. An anatomist picked one up, pondered a bit, and decided it resembled the blade on a shovel or spade. He named it scapula, Latin for shovel.

The eight wrist bones are another good example of simplicity. At first they were just numbered, but then they received Latin names, including scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum, and pisiform. Those Latin names are hard for us to remember, but they merely describe the bones’ shapes: boat, crescent moon, three-corners, and pea-shaped, respectively.

Not only do the bones have names that are vaguely descriptive, so do all of their bumps, ridges, and crannies. For instance, the tip of your shoulder is your acromion. This word is derived from the Greek acro meaning highest or topmost (as in acropolis — high city) and from omion, meaning shoulder. That makes sense, as does olecranon to describe the tip of your elbow. It comes from Greek, olene for elbow plus kranion for head. But what about the bumps on both sides of your ankle? They are malleoli. Malleus means hammer. What were they thinking?

Then consider that the hip joint’s deep socket in the pelvis is officially known as the acetabulum — pretty strange to a non-Latin speaker, but it is simply named for its resemblance to a vinegar cup: acetum for vinegar plus -abulum for container. I do not know, however, what the early anatomists did with cups of vinegar. Maybe it was just wine that had gone bad, and they drank it anyway just before naming the malleoli.

Doctors today buy into the Greek-and-Latin-naming tradition both necessarily and willingly. By using uniform terminology, professionals can understand oral presentations and written journal articles from around the world. Then too, consciously or unconsciously, tossing ancient expressions around separates the wizards from the uneducated masses. This makes knowledge privileged, and hence, valuable.

Without holding the secret keys to the kingdom, doctors could suddenly lose respect.

Consider for instance, the awe-inspiring term, foramen magnum — the one-inch diameter hole at the base of the skull from whence the spinal cord emerges. Foramen magnum sounds grand and important, perhaps even magical, doesn’t it? It translates into English, however, as big hole.

Roy A. Meals is an orthopedic surgeon who blogs at About Bone

Image credit: Roy A. Meals

View 2 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories