It’s alimentary, my dear Watson!
Once swallowed, the long and winding road our dinner takes gives us ample opportunity to visit some intriguing points of interest, etymologically speaking, of course! Recall, with these articles on anatomical etymology I’m focusing on terms I find especially interesting and have omitted several anatomical structures and physiological processes along the way. Let’s now explore several highlights of this remarkable journey from ingestion to egestion, as it were. Bon appetit!
The pathway by which our food travels is referred to as the alimentary canal and also by the terms digestive tube or digestive tract. Alimentary means “pertaining to nourishing.” Incidentally, variations of alimentary appear in common words such as alma mater, meaning “nourishing mother,” and alimony, meaning money alloted for “nourishment or sustenance.”
As we masticate or “chew” our food, our teeth grind the current bite of food into something that looks quite different from what arrived on the dinner plate. Well, hopefully at least! This begins the process of physical digestion and serves to “divide and dissolve” the various carbohydrates, fats and proteins contained within the food. This process of physical digestion then combines with a process called chemical digestion. One component of chemical digestion involves saliva. Saliva, which actually means “spit,” is released from our salivary glands. Recall, gland means “acorn.” One of the digestive enzymes contained within saliva is salivary amylase. Amylase means “starch splitter.” Amylase provides the chemical breakdown of complex carbohydrates, like starch, into sugars. Sugar derives originally from a word meaning “grit or gravel.” Enzyme means “leavened, to blend, to ferment.”
The process of digestion, which means “to divide, to dissolve,” provides the means to release the valuable nutrients contained within the newly “divided and dissolved” food. This facilitates the absorption of these nutrients through the alimentary canal and eventually into the general bloodstream toward numerous and needy destinations. Nutrient derives from nourish, which means “to feed, to provide with nutriment,” and is also related to nurture, meaning “to feed and protect,” and even related to nurse, in this case, meaning “to suckle.”
I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!
As the masticated food mixes with saliva it forms a bolus or “ball” and passes from the throat, or pharynx, to the esophagus and finally to the stomach. Throat derives from words meaning a “swelling or bulge.” Pharynx means a “gulf or chasm,” while esophagus means “to carry or pass through to eat.” Stomach derives from stoma meaning “mouth or opening,” indicating it receives the bolus. The technical term for the process of swallowing food is deglutition, and means “to swallow, to gulp down.” The not so flattering words glutton and gluttony derive directly from deglutition. Phagous, a variation of which appears in esophagus, means “to eat,” and appears in sarcophagus, which means “flesh eater!” The Egyptian stone coffin called a sarcophagus refers to the type of stone used in the construction of the sarcophagus that was believed to “eat the flesh” of those entombed within it.
When swallowing, the epiglottis repositions itself to cover the glottis, which is the opening between the vocal folds (cords) thereby directing food to the esophagus to prevent food and drink from entering the larynx and farther down the trachea. This reflexive action by the epiglottis is called the “swallowing reflex.” Epiglottis means “upon the tongue,” so named as it was believed to be an outgrowth of the tongue. Glottis, while referring to the tongue, can also mean “mouth of the windpipe.” The larynx is commonly known as the “voice box” and derives from a word meaning “I bellow.” In the 2nd Century C.E., Claudius Galen proved that the voice was generated in the larynx, and not in the heart as was previously believed. The phrase “to speak from the heart” still remains with us today, but to the ancient societies, it was a literal belief.
Trachea means “rough artery” or “windpipe.” The association with “artery” comes from the time before arteries were known to contain blood, let alone an understanding of the heart’s role in generating the circulation of the blood throughout the body. Therefore, during cadaver dissection, the result from the lack of a propulsive force required to circulate the blood allowed blood to collect or “pool” in the veins and this lead the early anatomists to erroneously conclude that only veins contained and “distributed” blood, and arteries contained and conducted only air. Therefore, artery means “air-keeper” or “windpipe.” This is how the trachea, or “rough artery” was named. The inclusion of the word “rough” contrasts the anatomical difference between the comparatively rough inner surface of the trachea and the smoothness or softness of the artery in terms of the blood vessel. Cadaver means the “fallen dead.”
The arteries described as an “air-keeper” or “windpipe,” were believed to “keep and conduct” the “life-giving” and “life-sustaining” substance from the surrounding atmosphere the ancients called pneuma. Inhaled on our first breath and exhaled on our last and in addition to sustaining life, pneuma was the source that was believed to animate us, thereby separating us from inanimate objects. It was our soul, so to speak. In a future post I’ll include a far more detailed account regarding how the early anatomists believed pneuma entered the body and was converted into its various forms to serve specific functions, and how it was distributed within the body and brain. Also, I’ll highlight the various ancient theories of how blood was "created" and “distributed” by such historical luminaries as Hippocrates, Aristotle, Praxagoras, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Galen, and of course, William Harvey who finally provided the correct answer in the year 1628. I promise you, it’s nothing short of astounding! The term pneuma survives in our present day use of pneumatic devices and tools that are activated (animated?) by compressed air.
Hey, everyone! Let’s talk “intestines!”
Interesting terms regarding the stomach include the cardia, so named because it lies quite near to the heart, which as we know often appears as “cardia” as in cardiologist. The cardia is located at the top or superior region of the stomach and the esophagus empties into it. At the opposite end of the stomach, the pylorus resides. The pylorus is the “gatekeeper” to the small intestine. The term “small” intestine refers to the diameter of the intestine, and not the length, that in this case can average twenty feet! The actual space within the intestine where food passes is called the lumen, and means “light.” Lumen also applies to the central opening in blood vessels. The term lumen may derive from the theoretical possibility that a light source could shine through this opening. Another possibility is that during dissections, light could be seen through the cut vessel.
Intestine means “internal, within, rope.” The term bowel is often used interchangeably with intestines. The term bowel comes from the word botulus. The term botulism also derives from botulus, the Latin word for “sausage!” Anatomically, the bowel or intestines can be said to resemble sausage. Historically, food-borne botulism and its clinical symptoms were first suspected of being linked to contaminated sausage.
Meanwhile, back at the small intestine.
The proximal or “first” section of the small intestine is called the duodenum. The duodenum is an especially amazing term. It literally means “the presence of twelve.” Twelve finger-breadths to be exact! Placing their fingers side-by-side, the early anatomists measured the duodenum at twelve finger- breadths. Incidentally, finger derives from a word meaning “five.” The palm of our hand was named after the palm tree, and some noteworthy muscles in the palm include the lumbrical muscles which means “pertaining to an earthworm.” More about our amazing hand anatomy in a future post.
After the duodenum the next section we encounter on our tour of the small intestine is called the jejunum which means “empty.” During cadaver dissections this section was found to be just that— empty. The ileum is the next section and means “flank, twisted, viscera, guts.”
Let’s play hide-and-go-cecum
The large intestine is the final major section of the alimentary canal, and is so named because of its large diameter. It averages approximately five to six feet in length. The large intestine is also known as the colon. Researching the term colon produced a plethora of possible origins such as: “limb-like” segment of the body, hollow, bent or crooked, even meat and food!” The aforementioned ileum passes its contents into the first section of the colon called the cecum, which is a cul-de-sac like pouch. Cecum means “blind,” referring to the lumen of the cecum leading to the darkened, and therefore “blind” dead-end pouch. Then we meet the ascending or “upward” section of the colon, then the transverse or “horizontal” section of the colon, and then the descending or “downward” section of the colon that meets the sigmoid portion of the colon, so named for its resemblance to the capitol letter “S.” The next section is the rectum meaning “straight.” Fortunately, all this activity remains “hidden” behind the abdominal wall.
Oh, those abominable abdominals!
Abdominal means “hidden.” When one ingested food, it disappeared as if “hidden” from sight by the abdominal wall. The abdominal muscles include the rectus abdominis. Rectus, like rectum, means “straight.” The fibrous line running down the center of this muscle is called the linea alba, or “white line.” The abdominal obliques include the external and internal abdominal oblique. The curved fibrous line demarcating the separation of the rectus abdominis from the abdominal obliques is called the linea semi-lunaris, or the “half-moon line.” Oblique means “slanted or diagonal.” The transversus abdominis muscle means to “travel or turn across.”
The omentum is a fatty layer of peritoneum that covers much of the abdominal viscera. Peritoneum means to “stretch around.” Omentum may possibly come from a word meaning “apron.” It is believed to be related to the word omen, which can actually portend something good, although it is usually associated with something negative. Historically, it was a common practice to study the fatty omentum of sacrificed animals to foretell the future, thereby determining the positive or negative connotations of the “omen.”
Our waist is another general term that was derived by simple observation. Waist is derived from waxing,” as in a waxing, or growing moon! A waxing moon implies its observable or illuminated surface is increasing in size, say from half, to full moon. When the observable surface decreases it is said to begin “waning.”
Contemplating my omphalos!
Our navel is one of the most fascinating and imaginative of all the anatomical terms. It comes from “omphalos,” a rounded raised stone, the most famous being the Omphalos at Delphi, in Greece. This stone represented the exact center of the world to the early Greeks, and anatomically the omphalos or navel was believed to mark the center of the human body. According to Greek mythology, Zeus was said to have simultaneously dispatched two eagles, one from the extreme east of the world, and one from the extreme west of the world. Where these eagles met marked the exact center of the world, Delphi, of course! The omphalos stone was subsequently placed at this location. Now then, contemplate that!
Until next time…..