“Sherman, set the WABAC machine….”
With the spirit of the genius Mr. Peabody in mind, let us begin our journey with the following instruction, "Sherman, set the WABAC machine to a time when terms were created to describe human anatomy and physiology, and how we might improve through exercise, particular body systems."
Incidentally, the very first episode of Peabody's Improbable History includes a visit to ancient Rome as they happen upon a chariot salesman promoting his new and used chariots. So, while there may be nothing new about history, so to speak, it never seems to get old.
The early anatomists were real “cut ups!”
Our journey must begin with the very foundation of sound exercise prescription, and that is an understanding of human anatomy and physiology. You cannot improve a human body system unless you are intimate with its structure and function. How do we safely and progressively train an organ such as a skeletal muscle, bone, or our heart, so that it functions more efficiently, or more powerfully. Firstly, you can analyze the structure of each organ separately as the early anatomists did. Then you can determine its function. During the infancy of anatomy and physiology, how things were believed to actually function is often alarming, and amusing. Now, let's anatomize some key terms written here thus far, and release their meanings.
The term anatomy means "the process of cutting up, or apart." An anatomist, therefore, is “one who cuts up.” Physiology means the "the study of nature." The nature of living things to be exact. Therefore, anatomy addresses structure, while physiology addresses how the structure works. I chose “infancy” intentionally to describe the early stages of our knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Infancy, obviously relating to a particular stage during our development. No great etymological revelation thus far!
Yet, did you know that infant literally means, "not able to speak." That's where the excitement lies dormant, awaiting its freedom. I'll cover terms related to embryology in future posts, but in the mean time, embryology is literally "the study of swelling,'' as we certainly grow, or “swell” in size through our successive stages of development. And, perhaps even develop into an athlete, which means "one who competes for a prize." Overall, I'll only include my favorite anatomical, physiological, and medical terms, as it would be unrealistic to address all named areas of a complex organism such as a human being. At least it may provide a starting point for you to further explore.
I do not intend to create an anatomy and physiology text book here. If necessary, I’ll briefly describe structure and function only if it enhances or more clearly explains the meaning of a term. For example, most individuals have a basic understanding of the physiology of the heart and realize it’s considered an organ. The origin of the term organ, though, might be overlooked in typical texts regarding exercise or anatomy. Some might even be familiar with specific heart related terms such as ventricle or mitral valve. Again, it's generally rare to see the actual meaning of terms such as these. How did they acquire such names?
Let’s get organized!
Organ is of ancient Greek derivation and means, “a tool, or that with which one works.” It’s related to the Greek word, ergon, which means “to work.” The common word energy is derived from ergon, as energy is required to “do work,” such as exercise, which means "to remove restraint, to drive on, to keep busy." An organism such as ourselves describes “a form of life composed of mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes.” Organ also appears in the common word organize which means “having a formal organization or orderly arrangement, especially to carry out widespread activities.” Activities which, of course, require energy!
So, the next time we’re organizing our desk, or our life for that matter, perhaps we’ll share a newfound affection for these words that now have the opportunity to leave the shadow of “common” words, and have their well deserved moment in the sun.
Two previously mentioned heart related terms were ventricle and mitral valve. Ventricle means "little belly" as these lower chambers of the heart imparted a “belly-like” appearance when first examined. Ventricle is related to the term ventral, which means “pertaining to the belly.” Ventral even appears in the word ventriloquist which means “belly or stomach speaker, one who is skilled at speaking from the belly.” Mitral valve, means a valve "pertaining to a miter." A miter being a tall, often ornamented headdress with raised points in front and back, worn by a Bishop, for example. In our heart the cusps or “raised points” of the “miter” assume an inverted position.
Incidentally, many anatomical structures such as the mitral valve go by other names. In the case of the mitral valve, it is also known as the left atrioventricular valve which indicates it’s a valve located between the left atrium and the left ventricle. It is also called the biscuspid valve, which means “possessing two points or cusps.” Atrium, or the plural form atria refers to “an entrance hall, a central room or open court” in an ancient Roman House, and in anatomy refers to the upper chambers in our heart, of which there are two. The two lower chambers are the aforementioned ventricles.
"Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”
“where there’s fire, there’s smoke.”
An interesting side note is the possibility that atrium may also be related to the ancient word ater or atars which originally meant “fire.” Future derivatives such as ater, atra, and atrum came to infer black, dark, gloomy, dismal, unlucky and were thought to also describe something that had been “burnt or blackened by smoke,” in a hearth for example, perhaps lending a blackened or sooty appearance to the room which contained the hearth. The smoke rising from the hearth needed to escape safely from the home through a hole in the roof, and with “open court” cited as one of the definitions of atrium, it complements and strengthens this possible connection rather nicely.
The anatomical application of the term atrium to the upper chambers of the heart appeared much later, yet acknowledges and compliments the “entrance hall” definition as blood returning from the systemic and pulmonary circulation enters the “entrance hall” like chambers of the atria and awaits contraction of the heart to propel the blood contained within these chambers into the ventricles and onward through the process of circulation.
Circulation of the blood was first accurately described by William Harvey in 1628. Numerous theories regarding the function of the heart and movement of the blood have abounded for millennia and include contributions from such historical titans as Hippocrates, Aristotle, Erasistratus, Claudius Galen, Andreas Vesalius, and countless others. Yet, it was William Harvey who applied his powers of keen observation, experimentation, quantitative measurements, and demonstration, to prove that blood moves in a circular manner. That is the key point. The true definition of circulation inferring that in this case, blood returns to the exact location from where it started, and the contraction of the heart was to accomplish this. This is Harvey’s astounding contribution to anatomy, physiology, and medicine. This is Harvey’s genius.
Additionally, the original and literal translation of curfew, was “cover-fire.” In ancient times common dwellings had no proper chimney with which to vent the smoke from a fire. Therefore, a fire was built upon a hearth in the center of the room with the smoke rising out through a hole in the roof. These common dwellings were poorly constructed and huddled together in extremely close proximity to their neighbor. Straw or similar material was often used as a floor covering. The fire upon the hearth was needed for many household reasons and therefore it was inconvenient to allow the fire to go out unless absolutely necessary. Extreme care had to be taken to prevent a wooden log perhaps, from rolling off the hearth and onto the rather flammable floor covering and subsequently destroying not only their house, but multiple others.
A law throughout Europe was enacted to prevent such disasters. This regulation was called in Old French covre-feu. A later variation of this word became couvre-feu or literally “cover-fire.” Future blending in the verbal liquidizer led to courfew, curfu and eventually curfew. Each evening a bell was rung to alert the citizens to either extinguish the fire on the hearth or “cover” it with a circular metal lid. The metal lid had vent holes cut into it and contained the burning embers until morning, therefore helping to prevent a disaster while members of the household slept. This metal lid was called, of course, a covre-feu or cover-fire. Our modern day application of curfew certainly has changed yet still refers to a sense of imposed containment and control through the enforcement of rules or laws.
Also, the word focus originally meant “hearth or fireplace!” And, as we’ve discovered, the hearth represented the central location, the focal point, of a Roman dwelling by providing warmth, a place to gather as a family, and an area in which to prepare food. Hail Etymology! The word that just keeps giving!
It’s all Greek to me! Or is it Latin or Proto-Indo-European?
Many origins of terms related to human anatomy are speculative, and therefore debatable, offering multiple theories and places of origin. I mentioned previously that organ, and ergon, were of “Greek derivation,” and covre-feu was “Old French.” With a few possible exceptions, and in the interest of simplicity, I’ll now refrain from prefacing each anatomical term with phrases such as; “of Latin origin, of Greek origin, of New Latin from Greek! Of Old English, of Old French, of Indo-European, of Proto-Indo-European, etc.” The point is to enjoy the ultimate meaning of the term. That’s what I’d like to focus upon, and hope will be remembered.
To further simplify matters, when I use the word function it will be to impart the general idea of how a structure operates. Technically, when one discusses physiology, plain function is considered separately from true physiology. Physiology, recall, is the study of living things and begins at the level of the cell. For example, organelles, which are the component parts of a cell are considered non-living, thereby performing a plain function. Cell means "store room, chamber, or small room." Organelle means “tiny organ.”
Until next time….