Monday, May 22, 2006

Why doctors use Greek/Latin

Did you know that the word leg properly refers to the body part between the knee and the ankle? By properly, I don't just mean "according to anatomists/doctors"; it is historically true as well. The part between the knee and trunk is the thigh. If we abide by this usage, we are left without a very good word for the "lower extremity".

Anatomists often use arm to mean strictly the upper arm (i.e. the part between the elbow and shoulder), but this is not historically justified.

The waist is the narrow part of the body between the hips and rib cage. And yet, it seems only middle-aged women wear pants around the waist. My belt goes around the hips.

What exactly do I mean by hip? Normally, I use it to refer to the wide part, at the bottom of the trunk. The pelvic bones. But in other situations, hip refers to the hip joint, where the femur (thigh bone) interacts with the pelvic bones. And thus, a broken hip usually refers to the head of the femur breaking off.

Thorax has a fairly specific meaning, but what about its supposed equivalent in English: chest. If I get shot in the back, just below the neck, will I have been shot in the chest? Or does the chest only comprise the front part of the thorax?

Is the thumb a finger? Is the hand part of the arm, or just connected to it? English, in these cases, is very imprecise. And so don't blame doctors for occasionally speaking in tongues.


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