Etymology of Abdominal Visceral Terms

With particular thanks to Jack Lyons, MD

Capitulum and its synonym Capitellum - Both are diminutives of the Latin word caput, meaning head, and so mean a little head. If you have difficulty remembering whether the radius articulates at the capitulum or the trochlea, it may help to note that the head of the radius articulates at this little head. They go at one another “head to head”. The stem caput is pretty obviously the source of the English word capital = most important . A capital offense is one for which the punishment was once decapitation or a serious crime for which you might lose your head. The capitate bone of the wrist is the largest or head bone in that part.

Cubital - This adjective, derived from cubitus meaning elbow, now refers to that region of the upper limb. The Latin stem word is the verb cubare = to lie down. The connection is through the Roman habit of reclining on the elbow, even while eating. Concubine has a similar etymology in which con- is a prefix meaning with, and again the verb cubare. Thus, a concubine is someone with whom you lie down. You will also learn that the medically used terms dorsal and ventral decubitus mean, respectively, lying down with the face up and face down.

Trochlea - A trochlea is a pulley (Latin). The relevance to the part of the humerus is not particularly evident.

Ulna is the latin word for elbow. It comes from the older Greek word olene meaning elbow. The stem appears in olecranon as well.

Olecranon - is of Greek origin. Olene = elbow and kranion is head. Hence, the head of the elbow. Our word cranium has the same root.

Styloid - The Greek stylos just means a pillar or any long upright body like a pillar. The -oid = shaped like, resembling.

Epicondyle - a condyle is a knuckle (Greek =- kondylos). Epi-, you probably now realize, is a prefix meaning on top of. So, an epicondyle is that which sits atop the knuckle. Perhaps more interesting is epitome. Here epi- again means upon, while the -tome is the same stem as that which appears in our word anatomy, meaning to cut up. Epitome is a cut upon. When something is cut upon it becomes shorter. Hence the epitome of a book, for example, is a summary or cutting down of the book to a short piece.

Retinaculum - This is another diminutive word. Retinere is the Latin verb to hold back or restrain. A retinaculum is something small that has that function. The flexor and extensor retinacula hold their respective tendons in place. Rather obviously, our word to retain as in a retaining wall originates from the same verb.

Thenar - We now associate thenar with the thumb but that is not its root meaning. The root is the Greek verb thenein, meaning to strike, and thenar was that part of the hand with which one would strike, or the palmar region. Only later did the division into thenar and hypothenar regions come about.

Pollicis is the genitive or possessive of the latin word for thumb which is pollex. Pollex, in turn, derives from a verb pollere meaning to be strong. Among the fingers, pollex is the big strong one.

Lumbrical - Most realize early on that this is from the Latin word lumbricus meaning worm. The appearance of the muscle is quite worm-like.

Pisiform - This is nothing more interesting than a derivitive of the Latin word pisum meaning pea. It means in the form of a pea. The bone is of about that size and shape.

Sesamoid - The pisiform is a sesamoid bone; the patella or kneecap another. By definition these bones form within tendons, usually where they pass across joints. The word is derived from the Greek and means resembling a sesame seed.

Triquetrum - You know that the prefix tri- means three (as in tricycle, triangle). Quetrum is a corner. So triquetrum is the three cornered bone.

Scaphoid comes from the Greek skaphe, signifying something dug out or hollowed out and hence a similarly shaped small boat (a skiff). The -oid is the suffix that denotes shaped like or resembling. With a little imagination, the wrist bone bearing this name can be envisioned as boat-shaped. Later you will learn that an abdomen which is flat to the point of being hollowed out as in starvation, is also referred to as scaphoid. This bone is also known as the navicular. Navis is Latin for boat and naviculus uses the dimunitive –ulus to signify a little boat. As you know, our Navy gets about in large and small boats.

Lunate - Luna is Latin for moon and lunate is crescent shaped as is the bone. A lunatic was at one time used to describe a person with an illness thought to be influenced by the phases of the moon. Epilepsy was one such disorder.

Phalanx - This is the word for the ancient Greek line of battle which was composed of close and deep ranks and files of infantry. The bones of the fingers are arranged in ranks or rows reminiscent of this formation.

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