Etymology of Abdominal Visceral Terms

With particular thanks to Jack Lyons, MD

Parenchyma - A direct Greek borrowing signifying “that which is poured in” from an ancient and erroneous belief that the solid organs of the abdomen got that way by the blood being poured into them and then congealing there.

Pylorus - comes directly from the Greek word for gatekeeper. They used the term for the lower end of the stomach generally whereas later Latin authors tended to restrict its use to the narrow thickened opening into the duodenum which we recognize as the pyloric valve. There it performs a clearly defined gatekeeper function for the gastric contents.

Duodenum - From its approximate length, this first part of the small intestine was called by the Greeks dodeka daktulon, meaning 12 fingers. It was translated into Arabic and ultimately emerged in Latin as duodenum in reference to its length.

Jejunum - from the Latin adjective jejunus = empty or fasting. At autopsy this portion of the small intestine is often empty of contents as a result of terminal peristalsis. In English intellectual jargon, jejune is a favorite word signifying empty or devoid of substance as in “a jejune conversation”.

Ileum - comes from the Greek word eilos signifying twisted. Why this particular segment of small bowel was chosen to bear this appellation is not clear given that upon opening the abdomen, all of the small bowel appears twisted, coiled, or folded upon itself. Incidentally, don’t confuse this ileum with the bone, spelled with an i = ilium.

Vermiform appendix – Vermiform comes from the Latin word vermis, meaning worm. Appendage and appendix both have the sense of an addition that is attached to the end of something. In this case, the name accurately describes this organ as a worm hanging off the end of the cecum.

Teres – as appears in ligamentum teres. Teres is a Latin word that means round and smooth or cylindrical. You will encounter a number of ligaments and muscles bearing this adjective as you progress through your anatomical studies. Some examples are:

Portal Vein – Well, this is pretty obviously a vein, but why is it portal? In nonbiological usage, portal is a noun describing an entrance or doorway; it is not an adjective. The Latin root is the word porta meaning a city gate or entrance. This, in turn, comes from the verb portare to carry or convey (through a gate or wherever). So the nonbiological meaning of portal is clear. The biological adjective portal has the same roots. The famous Roman physician Galen used the word porta to describe the transverse fissure of the liver which he considered the gateway of the liver – the porta hepatis. So the vein in question is portal for two reasons: it carries or conveys the blood – and it delivers it to the porta. Notice our English use of the same root in words such as porter, portable, import, etc.

Caudate - as in caudate lobe of the liver. You already know that cauda is Latin for tail and that caudal refers to the tail end. This lobe of the liver gets its name from the small tail of hepatic tissue called the caudate process that provides surface continuity between the caudate lobe and the visceral surface of the right lobe of the liver. The caudate process lies between the porta hepatis and the inferior vena cava.

Pancreas is a combination of the Greek pan = all (Pan America, etc) and kreas = flesh, a description that is well suited to this organ. The proper, but little used, plural is pancreata.

Cecum - is from the Latin caecus meaning blind as in “blind end”, in reference to this cul-de-sac at the beginning of the large bowel. Although little used now, the Greek etymology is richer and more interesting. The Greek word for that which we call the cecum is typhlos, again meaning blind. Typhlos came from the more basic Greek word typhos meaning smoke. The connection is evidently with the ability of smoke to blind one. Typhus and typhoid fevers share this sense of smoke or mist inducing confusion and disorientation that is typical of these fevers. Perityphlitis is a now rarely used word for appendicitis. And if you want to impress your friends with your erudition (and perhaps only demonstrate your pedantry) try using typhlodicliditis for inflammation of the ileocecal valve.

Haustra - Haustrations, and haustral markings all refer to the saccule-like pouches of the large bowel that appear between the longitudinal muscle fibers of the tenia coli. The basic word is the Latin haustrum meaning a bucket or scoop. The connection is pretty obvious.

Epiploic is an adjective taken from the Greek word epiploon meaning that which we (and the Latin writers) call the omentum. The Greek root. epipleo signifies to float upon - as the omentum floats upon the abdominal contents. The terms appendices epiploica and epiploic appendages are acceptable Latin and English terms describing the small fatty masses attached to the colon.

Figs of Fiacre – Saint Fiacre was a sixth century Irish missionary monk who lived in Italy. He became expert in the treatment of urological and lower gastrointestinal afflictions and especially of hemorrhoids. These became known colloquially at “the figs of Fiacre”;.Oddly, he is more widely known as the Patron Saint of gardeners and once was a patron of Paris cab drivers.

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