Thursday, March 31, 2016

Metaphors in Medicine - Glands

Check out my first post on metaphors in medical terminology here.

In this post, I'm going to focus on glands. A gland is an organ which secretes substances. We have several glands in our bodies, and these can be divided into two big groups depending on where they release their products:

- Endocrine glands - These secrete substances into the bloodstream, for example the pituitary gland secretes hormones.

- Exocrine glands - These secrete substances into ducts which ultimately lead to the outside of the body, for example sweat, tears, milk... Gastric glands (lining the inner walls of the stomach) are also considered exocrine glands, since they release gastric juices into a duct (the stomach) and not the bloodstream.

Just look at all those little glands!
The word gland itself has a metaphorical origin. According to Etymonline, the English form gland comes from the French glande (Old French glandre). This word, in turn, comes from the Latin glandula, which is a diminutive of glans. The word glandula was used to refer to the tonsils ("gland of the throat"), but the word was later extended to all glands in the body.

The Latin word glans, from which the term originates, means "acorn, nut, acorn-shaped ball." This online Latin dictionary also mentions "bullet thrown from a sling."

The word glans is still used in English today, and it refers to the rounded tip of the penis or the clitoris. I'm not going to add any pictures, but I'm sure you can see the similarity with an acorn! Actually, current-day Spanish (glande) and Catalan (gland), which originate from the same Latin term, have the exact same same anatomical sense. What's more, in Catalan, the word gla (coming straight from Latin) means acorn. In Spanish, an acorn is a bellota. The term probably comes from Arabic, which might have taken the word from the Greek "balanos."

But I'm getting off track.

Let's have a look at a couple glands. I was going to include the thyroid gland here, but its story is so complicated that it deserves its own post, which I'll get to soon.

Pineal Gland

This tiny gland nestled deep in the brain has been historically linked to spirituality. It's been called the third eye and the eye of Horus, and philosophers such as Descartes have claimed it is the "seat of the soul."

For a long time, not much was known about the actual physiology of the gland. Nowadays, we know it is in charge of releasing the hormone melatonin, which helps you maintain your circadian rhythm; your sleep-wake periods. The special thing about melatonin and the pineal gland is that production of the hormone and release into the bloodstream both depend on light. Secretion is very low during the day and higher once the sun sets.

As of today, researchers still don't know if the gland is responsible for other bodily functions.

The name in English comes from the French pinéal, which means "like a pine cone." The French form comes from the Latin pinea ("pine cone"), which derives from pinus ("pine tree").

Pine cones--presumably representing the third eye and the seat of the soul--are present in
many cultures worldwide. Have a look at this website for some neat information.


The ovaries are in charge of releasing an ovum every month, as well as releasing several female hormones such as estrogen. The word "ovary" comes from the Modern Latin ovarium. This term descends from Medieval Latin ovaria, meaning "the ovary of a bird." The root word is the Latin ovum, simply meaning "egg." The Spanish and Catalan terms for ovary also originated from Latin, and are ovario and ovari, respectively.

The word "oval" shares the same origin as "ovary." They both descend from the Latin word meaning "egg."

In Classical Latin, the word ovarius meant "egg-keeper."

In modern-day English, we still rely on the Latin term to refer to the eggs which the ovaries release: one egg is an ovum. The plural is ova. In Spanish, the eggs are called óvulos, whereas in Catalan they are òvuls (these are the plural forms with the -s).


Monday, March 28, 2016

Metaphors in Medicine - Anatomic Metaphors

Metaphors are a way of understanding life. Humans have used metaphors practically since the dawn of time to make sense of the world around them. It's easier to understand something new and unknown if you can find a point of similarity between it and something you are already familiar with.

The body seen as a house.
Sometimes we tend to think that metaphors are strictly artistic forms of expression. The truth couldn't be any further. Metaphors have a strong presence in science and technology. For example, we constantly (and unconsciously) hear and use metaphors when talking about computers (my computer has a virus).

We can find metaphors in medicine when we refer to anatomy (see the examples below), and also physiology (white blood cells combating against germs). Much of the medical terminology we use nowadays originates from Latin or Greek. Many of these terms started off as metaphors, but their metaphorical meaning has been forgotten over time.

Here are just some examples of anatomic metaphors to start off this series.


The term "muscle" reached English through Middle French. It comes from the Latin word "musculus," which is a diminutive form of "mus." The word "mus" means mouse. So, the word muscle originates from "little mouse." Ancient anatomists found that certain muscles (especially the biceps) looked like little mice.

Watch out, Tom! That mouse
has some muscle!
The ancient Greeks also made the same analogy between mouse and muscle, and they used the word "mys." This word is still present in medicine as the prefix "myo-," used to refer to muscles (for example, the heart: myocardium).

The shellfish "mussel" comes from exactly the same Latin origin, the "little mouse." For many years, English didn't have any distinction in spelling between "muscle" and "mussel."


Do you know that little dangly thing at the back of your throat? That's the uvula, and its function is to close off your nasal cavity when you swallow so that food doesn't go up into your nose. Its name comes from the Latin word uvola, meaning "small bunch of grapes."  The Latin word uva (meaning "grape") is still used in Spanish to refer to this fruit. In Spanish, the uvula is "úvula," and it also commonly called "campanilla," which means "little bell." This is yet another metaphoric term for an anatomical element.

The eye is full of metaphors!

Literally, "vitreous" means "glassy" or "glasslike." The word comes from the Latin "vitreus" ("glassy"), which stems from "vitrum" ("glass"). The "vitreous humor" refers to the transparent gel inside the eye.

The term "in vitro" also comes from the Latin "vitrus," meaning that fertilization takes place "in glass" instead of in the body.


The word "iris" hasn't changed from its original Latin form. It was used to refer to the iris plant, the iris of the eye, and also rainbows. In Greek, it had the same form, "iris," and also the same functions. The Greek goddess Iris was the messenger of the gods, and was the personification of a rainbow. The region of the eye was called "iris" because it gave the color of the eye. In Spanish, a rainbow is called "arco iris" ("iris arch").


This word originates from the Latin "lens," which means "lentil." In English we also use "lens" in several contexts: a camera lens, the crystalline lens of the eye (anatomy). "Lenticular clouds" are clouds which resemble lentils.

These are just a few examples of metaphors which have become an integral part of our anatomy. Stay tuned for more!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review - The Martian

This is one of the few times I watched a movie and then read the book. (It's usually the other way around, or I skip the movie version altogether.) I'm sooo happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.

The Martian by Andy Weir kept me entertained throughout, and I kept searching for spare moments to read a bit more. Wanting to return to a book is a great sign. More so in my case because I had already seen the movie and, well, the ending is predictable. There are several events and even lines of Watney's log entries which were mimicked exactly in the film. There are differences, of course, and that's where in my opinion the novel has the upper hand.

Watney is more prevalent in the novel, since most of the chapters are him writing in the system's log, explaining how his day went. Scenes with NASA are his crew mates are short and to the point.

This is excellent if you, like me, feel sympathy for Watney. I mean, sure, he's stranded on Mars, who wouldn't feel sympathy for him, right? Well, Watney can be annoying and immature at times. Other readers on Goodreads have criticized him for his corny jokes and his overall flowery positive attitude. I actually enjoyed his corniness and thought it made him cute.

As for the positive attitude, the way I read the novel, I got the feeling that he wasn't allowing himself to feel despair. He was purposefully shutting off that part of his psyche. There are several moments all the way up to the end where he talks about the possibility of death and he always has a back-up suicide plan in case things go wrong, so I didn't get the impression he was oblivious--just forcing himself to keep a positive mind. That's admirable, in my opinion.

Even though I already knew the details of the ending, there were some scenes that literally gave me goosebumps; scenes involving the solitude of Mars and the possibilities of failure. Those were carried out well, in my opinion.

Nevertheless, not everything was perfect. There were a few things that got on my nerves. The endless mathematical calculations were all right at first, but nearing the end of the novel I just skipped over them. I don't have a mathematical mind, so just skipping all the calculations to reach the outcome was good enough for me. This wasn't really a big problem. It granted the story scientific credibility, even though there were moments when the action was heavily bogged down. I would have preferred more action than calculations, really.

Another problem I had, and this one is more important, is that all the characters in the novel came off as corny and somewhat immature. Their one-liners and little joke wars reminded me of things high schoolers would say--not NASA scientists. I don't think there was a single character who wasn't affected by this novel's overall corniness. This took away some of their credibility and made everyone have the same personality. Watney is a bit more fleshed out, since we see him a lot more, but he's still very similar to everyone else.

Speaking of Watney, we don't know any of his backstory. Nothing. We also don't really get to experience Mars (the sights, etc.). In all the logs we read, he only mentions in passing that he has parents in Chicago. It would have been nice to know a bit more about him than his present predicament. It also would have been nice to visualize the planet more.

Complaints aside, I still enjoyed The Martian immensely and I'm glad I both saw the film and read the novel.

I give The Martian four out of five Pirates!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review - Barcelona Adult Coloring Book

Barcelona Adult Coloring Book by Alexandru Ciobanu is a wonderful idea--just fabulous! Imagine coloring in all the Catalan works of art! Those mosaics! Those buildings!

If you know a little bit about me, you probably already know I live in the Barcelona area. I love this city, its history, its architecture, its daily bustle...

M'encanta Barcelona!

I received a free PDF copy of this book from the author through a Librarything giveaway, all in exchange for an honest review. Here goes the honest review.

When I saw the listing for this book on Librarything, I practically tripped over my own fingers in my haste to click to enter the giveaway. As I live near Barcelona and am a huge fan of the city, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a coloring book dedicated to my beloved Ciutat Comtal.

Unfortunately, I wasn't so happy when I looked inside. The photographs are excellent. The color and angle of each photo is exquisite. The so-called drawings, however, leave much to be desired. I refer to the drawings as "so-called" because, while the book's Amazon description uses this term, in reality the images given to us to color are no more than the result of filtering the photographs.

The filter used resembles the pencil sketch filter you can find on Photoshop. Here's a quick tutorial by Lesa Snider on Macworld on how to transform any photograph into a pencil sketch. As you can see, the process isn't too difficult once you have an idea of how Photoshop works. (I personally used to mess around with the program's filters for hours and hours.)

I don't see any problem with using a filter to modify the original photographs and turn them into something someone can color in. However, while looking through the coloring book, I felt it had been put together with haste. In general, the filtered images contain residual dots and lines that should have been cleaned up to make coloring them easier. Take this image of the antenna at the Parc Olímpic, for example:

Part of the original photograph.
Part of the image to color in. The sky around the antenna
hasn't been cleaned up, so we can see remains of the thin clouds
and airplane trails, which give the image an unfinished feel.

This happens throughout the book. Other photographs contain segments which are slightly overexposed, or too dark. The filtered image can't capture the lines if the original is too light or too shadowed, so we have sections where we encounter white spaces. For example, look at the filtered image of the mosaic on the book's cover:

The section on the left is lost
through the filtering process.

Overall, I'm sad. I so wanted to love this book. The idea is wonderful. The original photographs are excellent. The drawings are disappointing. In my case, instead of relaxing, I found them a bit frustrating and I realized my heart rate was going up while attempting to color them because I couldn't ignore the fact that they all looked dirty. There are a couple close-up images of mosaics which are just beautiful, and these work very well to color in.

Even so, just compare Barcelona Adult Coloring Book to Fantastic Cities: A Coloring Book of Amazing Places Real and Imagined by Steve McDonald, and you'll see a huge leap in quality.

In conclusion, with a little more touching up, Barcelona Adult Coloring Book could be a great pastime. Unfortunately, the way it's available right now, I can't give it any more than two and a half Pirates.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Dictionary Dilemmas - Part One - The Basics + Source Language Errors

Have you ever studied a foreign language? Have you ever translated something from or into a foreign language? If you've responded "yes" to either one of these questions, then you surely must know how hard it can be to use a dictionary!

Dictionaries can be great friends for the adventurous second (or third! or fourth!) language learner, as well as the occasional or professional translator. But dictionaries can also be tricky.

In this series of posts, I'm going to focus on bilingual dictionaries and the many errors in use I've come across in my years teaching English as a second language at the UOC, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

All the examples shown in these posts are real, though I have made some edits to the sentences (typos, shortening). Of course, the sentences are shown in complete anonymity and are only intended to be used as commentary to highlight typical errors which occur when learning a new language.

Source and target

In translation, we refer to the working texts and languages as "source" or "target." Source languages are the ones we translate from and target languages are the ones we translate into. We begin working with the source text in the source language and end up with the target text in the target language.

In the extremely detailed image below, you can see how the source language is transformed into the target language by means of translation.

Yeah, that about covers how messy it can get.

In the cases I'll mention below, the target language is English. The source languages are Catalan and Spanish. English is the third (or sometimes fourth) language my students are learning.

Basics of using a bilingual dictionary

Source sentence (in Spanish): Quiero abordar este asunto pendiente.
Target sentence (English): I want to tackle this ... issue.

In this example sentence, let's imagine I don't know how to say pendiente. Let's look it up in a bilingual dictionary! Wordreference is a good option.

1) Think about the type of word you need. Do you need a noun, an adjective, adverb, verb...? - The word pendiente is an adjective which modifies asunto - issue. I need an adjective.

2) Make sure you spell the word correctly in your source language! This might sound like a silly remark, but I've encountered several examples where the original word was misspelled, leading to a confusing translation. Examples below.

3) Look at the different options the dictionary provides. Which word fits the grammatical word type you need (noun, adjective, verb, etc.)? In this example, the first entry in the dictionary is an adjective. The word we need is also an adjective! Wordreference offers us a synonym in the source language: pendiente - aplazado. This helps us know if we're on the right track.

4) Does the dictionary offer example phrases or sentences? Have a look at the usage of the translated words in the context of the sentences. Yes! Wordreference usually offers compound forms, where you can find idioms, collocations... Look! The third option in the list is exactly what I wrote in my original sentence: asunto pendiente!

5) With all the information the dictionary gives you, make your choice. Choose a word or a phrase as a translation. I can choose either "pending matter" or "pending issue."

6) To be extra sure you chose the right translation, I recommend looking up the target word in a monolingual dictionary. Does the definition make sense for what you want to say? Yes! It makes perfect sense! Yay!

Target sentence: I want to tackle this pending issue/matter.

Examples of Source Language Errors

To finish this post, I'd like to share some real examples of sentences ESL students have written. The mistakes in these sentences were caused by mistakes in the source language. It's very important to correctly spell the word you want to look up!

Example 1

I have blond hair and blue garlics.
Tengo el pelo rubio y los ajos azules.

This was a simple one-letter typo a student made, which completely changed the meaning of his description! The student used Google Translator to translate the whole sentence and didn't stop to proof it.

The correct sentence is "I have blond hair and blue eyes" - ojos.

Example 2

Overcoat, you must work weekends and holidays.
Sobretodo, debes trabajar los fines de semana y festivos.

Here the student wanted to say "especially", "above all", "most of all" or any similar expression. The student should have looked up sobre todo (two words) instead of sobretodo (one word). Ah, the importance of a single space!

The correct sentence is "Above all, you must work weekends and holidays."
Another option is "You must work especially weekends and holidays."

(There are more possibilities here.)

Example 3

I like Italian food: pasta, pizza and gutters.
Me gusta la comida italiana: pasta, pizza y canalones.

This error is probably an influence of Catalan over Spanish. In Catalan, cannelloni are canelons, and that letter "e" is pronounced in its neutral form, which sounds almost like an "a." This pronunciation has filtered through to Spanish, making some bilingual Catalan-Spanish speakers write the word incorrectly.

The correct sentence is "I like Italian food: pasta, pizza and cannelloni."


Dictionaries are an excellent resource, but you must always be careful when you manipulate one!

I will write more posts with other examples of dictionary gaffes.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review - Anansi Boys

If you've read my previous post, you'll know the very first book I finished in 2016 left a sour knot in my gut. Fortunately, I was reading another book at the same time, Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, and the adventures within its pages managed to wash away some of the frustration caused by The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Anansi Boys is immensely engaging from page one, I deeply enjoyed this story and its characters, from the old trickster Anansi to the victim-turned-hero Fat Charlie and even his suave and egotistical brother Spider. It's full of magic, of gods, and of adventure.

Readers can quickly sympathize with Fat Charlie's plight. He's the mild-mannered son of Anansi, the Spider god. Raised in Florida, Fat Charlie (who isn't really fat, but his father made up that nickname and it stuck) escapes to London the moment he has a chance. But when he receives news of his father's death, he must return to Florida and confront his past.

Fat Charlie's past involves a brother, one he didn't even know he had. When Spider, the long-lost sibling, shows up at Fat Charlie's home, things begin to get out of hand. Spider takes over everything in Fat Charlie's life; he causes complications at his workplace, makes himself his own magical bedroom (hot-tub included) in Charlie's closet, and even shows interest in Charlie's fiancée, Rosie.

Spider screws everything up for poor Fat Charlie, but I still adored him! In my opinion, this is the best aspect of Anansi Boys: no matter how much the brothers try to provoke each other's demise (and believe me, they do!), I still fell fully invested in each one.

As the story progresses, more and more elements of African folklore creep into Fat Charlie's surroundings. He decides he has to get rid of Spider once and for all before his life is officially ruined. I don't want to give anything else away, so you'll just have to read and see where the brothers' antics take you!

The only downside is that the resolution felt rushed and devoid of the magic I'd grown so accustomed to throughout the story. Nevertheless, Anansi Boys is a fun addition to my library, and one I'll surely read again.

Anansi Boys gets four out of five Pirates!

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