There are thousands of different anatomy terms but most of them have rather boring origins. However, there are some common terms for human body parts that have quite interesting etymology. Below is a list of some of the more interesting ones. If you know of any parts of the human anatomy that have especially interesting origins, please comment below and share them with us!
Adam’s Apple – The cartilaginous laryngeal prominence in males is believed to be so named because, in ancient times, it was supposedly thought to be a piece of forbidden fruit caught in Adam’s throat. There are conflicting arguments however, with the main counter-argument being that it is simply a mistranslation from another language.
Achilles tendon – Achillies, the Greek hero of the Trojan war, was held by this part of his body when his mother Thetis dipped him into the river Styx to make him invulnerable. As a result of this handhold, his heel was his only weakness as it didn’t get wet during the dipping. This single weakness was eventually the source of his eventual downfall and came to mean a weak point.
Artery – The word artery comes from the Latin and Greek word “arteria,” which means “air holder.” The arteries were originally thought to carry air throughout the body. View our Artery Infographic.
Atlas – The topmost cervical vertebrae is named after the Greek Titan, Atlas, who held the world on his shoulders.
Bursa – The medical term ‘bursa’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘purse’.
Capillary – Derived from the Latin word ‘capillaris’ which means “relating to the hair or any structure as fine as a hair”. Early anatomists thought capillaries looked hair-like. View our Capillary Infographic.
Coccyx – ‘COCCYX’ comes from the Greek word ‘kokkyx‘, meaning “cuckoo”. The coccyx was thought to resemble a cuckoo’s beak. View our Coccyx Infographic.
Fibula – The fibula derives its name from Latin fibulae. In Latin, a fibulae is a brooch that works similar to the modern-day safety pin. A fibulae was used to fasten fabrics together, such as when wearing a tunic or toga. The bones of the lower leg together resemble a safety pin with the fibula making up the ‘pin’ part.
Hamstring – When the thighs of pigs (hams) were hung by butchers, they were hung by hooks through the rope-like (or ‘string’-like) tendons of these muscles. Hence the term, ‘ham+string’
Iris – The colored part of the eye is named after Iris, the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology. The color of the iris in people can be one or more of many different colors.
Olecranon – the olecranon, the large, thick, curved bony eminence of the ulna, is a compound of two latin words; ōlénē = elbow and kraníon = head/helmet. The olecranon is the therefore the ‘head’ of the ulna.
Patella – The term ‘patella’ comes from latin and means ‘little plate’. View our Patella Infographic.
Pineal gland – The pineal gland, the small melatonin and serotonin-producing gland near the center of the brain, is so named because it’s shape is similar to that of a pine cone.
Sartorius – The sartorius is the longest muscle in the body and is activated most when you sit cross-legged. As a result of the position that activates it, the muscle was named ‘sartorius’, which is Latin for Tailor. Tailors used to sit cross-legged when pinning hems.
Sesamoid – A sesamoid is a naturally occurring bone that is embedded in a tendon. The term ‘sesamoid’ was derived in the late 17th century from the word ‘sesame’. Sesamoid bones are often quite small and early anatomists felt they looked like sesame seeds within tendons. The patella is the largest example of this in the human body.
Sole – Though you may think that the sole of the foot is named after the fish, it is actually the reverse. The fish is so named because it’s shape is similar to that of the bottom of the human foot. The sole of the foot is actually derived from the Latin solum, meaning “bottom”.
Uvula – The dangly bit that hangs at the back of your throat is called the uvula, which means ‘little grape’ in Latin. It does indeed look a bit like a grape, don’t you think?
If you’re interested in the etymology of anatomical terms, this page has a very good list.