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 "├║vula," 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!


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