A new book illustrates the origins of the terms we use to describe the human anatomy.

It’s exhilarating uncovering the historical roots of anatomical terms - there’s a real sense of it being an adventure around the body.

Isla Fay

Where is the seahorse in our brain? Why is there a Turkish saddle in our head? Why are our heart chambers named after Roman halls?
A new book by Cambridge anatomists provides an illustrated guide to the mysterious vocabulary of the human body - the terms used to teach trainee surgeons and doctors about how we work.  The Secret Language of Anatomy will be launched at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas where its authors will give a talk which will bring to life the rich imagery that was adopted by the anatomists of the past and seek to decode patterns in the naming of diverse structures in different regions of the body.
The book came about because of concerns among the authors - Cecilia Brassett, Emily Evans and Isla Fay - that medical students found many anatomical terms confusing. “They didn’t just have to understand anatomy and physiology. They had to deal with not understanding the words they were using to describe structures and processes,” says Dr Brassett, who is a linguist in addition to being the current University Clinical Anatomist.
At first she considered producing a small pocket handbook for students to explain the origins of the words used to describe parts of the body.  She consulted Emily Evans, a medical illustrator who is also a senior demonstrator of anatomy at the University. She runs Anatomy Boutique and Anatomy Boutique Books and regularly gives talks about the use of anatomy in contemporary art practice.
Evans felt the book could reach out beyond medical students. It was she who did the illustrations of the 125 terms in the book. They show both the parts of the body and what they were named after. In some cases, this requires inversion of objects so the relation between the word and the part of the body is clear.
Each entry and each chapter has a description of how particular types of words - from flora and fauna to architecture and astronomy - came to be used in anatomy.

Having worked in Anatomy for many years Dr Brassett had already formulated some themes which grouped particular words together. Her first idea was Architecture, in particular how many of the words used in Anatomy relate to Roman Architecture, such as atrium [in the heart], fauces [the passage at the back of the throat] and the ostium [the opening of the cervix]. “The home is such an intimate concept and it makes sense to use it to  name the parts of the body,” says Dr Brassett. The landscape was also a clear inspiration for many anatomists. “There are references to mountains, caves and ditches.  It was very clear that anatomists were inspired by their surroundings. Nowadays, we are surrounded by man-made things, but in the past the landscape was much more prominent,” says Dr Brassett.
Another category is birds - their use for anatomical parts has a long history, dating back to ancient times. The coccyx, for instance, is named after the ancient Greek word for cuckoo. The physician Galen gave that name to the bone at the bottom of the spine because he thought it resembled the bill of a cuckoo. Bird-related words became popular again in the Renaissance period at the same time that avian anatomical parts began to be named in English. Isla Fay, the Human Anatomy Technical Coordinator in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience who was previously a historical researcher, says this may also have coincided with the publication of illustrated ornithological encyclopedias.
The Renaissance period was a rich one with regard to new anatomical terms. The fact that many anatomists were polymaths - they may have been zoologists or botanists or artists, for instance - meant the references they used drew from a broad range of disciplines. Many were collectors of objects - the so-called cabinets of curiosities.
In the 20th century anatomy was stripped of a lot of previously used terms, for instance, some like the pelvis, meaning a bowl-shaped container, were used in other parts of the body such as the brain. Descriptions relating to surgeons from the past which would no longer be relevant were also dropped. “The terms which were more visual were retained as they helped students to understand their shape and function,” says Dr Brassett.
Isla Fay adds that many terms, such as the Turkish saddle or sella turcica which describes the bone in which the pituitary gland sits, convey a sense of exploration. The hippocampus - the Latin for seahorse - describes the shape of the part of the brain that controls memory.  She states: “It’s exhilarating uncovering the historical roots of  anatomical terms - there’s a real sense of it being an adventure around the body.”




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