The Proper Names of 17 Bodily Functions

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Ask an anatomist, and they’ll be able to tell you that your kneecap is really your patella. Your armpit is your axilla and the little groove above your top lip is your philtrum. The little flap of cartilage the covers the hole in your ear? That’s your tragus, named after the Greek word for a billy goat—because the tuft of hair that grows on it resembles a goat’s beard (apparently).

But if that’s what’s on the outside, what about what happens on the inside? Well, it turns out the English language has quite a rich collection of formal, medical, and old fashioned words for all of the reflexes and reactions that our bodies naturally carry out without a second thought from us. So the next time you’re stretching as you get out of bed, or you interrupt an important meeting with a ructus or a borborygmus, you’ll at least have the perfect word for it.

1. BORBORYGMI

Derived originally from an onomatopoeic Greek word, a borborygmus is a rumbling in the stomach or bowels. Borborygmi are produced as the contents of the intestines are pushed along by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis, although trapped gas from digested food or swallowed air can also cause your borborygmi to become noisier than normal. Bonus fact: Queasy stomach rumbles were called wambles in Tudor English, and you’d be wamble-cropped if you weren’t feeling well.

2. CACHINNATION

A study in 2013 found that when people laugh, it's only because they've found something funny about 20 percent of the time. The rest of the time, we use laughter as a means of signaling things like agreement, affection, ease, and nostalgia that we evolved long before communication through language was possible. And a fit of spontaneous, uproarious, unrestrained laughter is called cachinnation.

3. CICATRIZATION

Cicatrization is the formation of a cicatrix, or a scar. More generally, it refers to any of the healing and sealing processes that help a wound to mend, including the formation of a scab.

4. DEGLUTITION

Deglutition is the proper word for the action of swallowing. It’s an etymological cousin of words like glut, glutton, and gullet.

5. DIAPHORESIS

Sweating has been known by a whole host of (ironically quite beautiful) words in history, including the likes of resudation, sudorification, and diaphoresis, a 17th century word that literally means “to carry through.” Nowadays, "diaphoresis" is rarely encountered outside of purely medical contexts, where it’s used as an older or more formal name for excessive perspiration—a condition better known as hyperhidrosis.

6. ERUCTATION

As well as being another word for a volcanic eruption, eructation is the medical name for burping, while the burp itself is called a ructus. For what it’s worth, the Romans knew excessive or unstoppable belching as ructabundus (although sadly that word has yet to catch on in English).

7. FLATUS

So if a ructus is a burp, no prizes for guessing that a flatus goes the other way. Technically though, flatus is just the build-up of gas in the stomach or bowels, not the actual expulsion of it. For that, why not try using an old Tudor English word for a fart—ventosity.

8. HORRIPILATION

Horripilation literally means “bristled hairs,” and is the proper name for what you probably know as gooseflesh or goose bumps. Another name for the same thing is piloerection, although that also includes the phenomenon of animals raising their hair or fur (or, in the case of porcupines, their quills) when they’re stressed or under attack.

9. LACHRYMATION

Lachrymation is the proper name for shedding tears, which are produced in the lachrymal glands above the outer edges of the eyes and are stored in a lachrymal sac on either side of the bridge of the nose. And if you want to get really technical, there are three different types of tears: basal tears, which are constantly produced to keep the surface of the eyes moist; reflex tears, which are the extra tears produced when something enters or irritates the eye; and psychic tears, which are those produced as a response to a mental or emotional stimulus.

10. MASTICATION

Mastication is the proper name for chewing. Etymologically, it’s descended from a Greek word literally meaning “to gnash your teeth,” and is related both to mandible and papier-mâché (which is literally “chewed paper” in French).

11. NICTITATION

Nictitation is the proper name for blinking or winking, and comes from an old pre-Latin word meaning “to incline or bend together,” just as the eyelids do. That twitching muscle in your eyelid after you’ve strained your eyes? That’s a blepharospasm.

12. OBDORMITION

Obdormition is the proper name for sleeping, but it’s usually only used in reference to the feeling of numbness, caused by pressure on a nerve, when a limb or muscle “falls asleep.” Pins and needles, incidentally, is properly called paraesthesia.

13. PANDICULATION

Pandiculation is essentially a catchall term for all those things you do when you’re tired or just waking up, like yawning, stretching your arms and legs, and cracking your joints. Monday morning, in other words.

14. RHINORRHOEA

When your nose runs, that’s rhinorrhoea. Except when you’re having a nosebleed, which is called epistaxis.

15. SINGULTUS

In Latin, singultus was speech interrupted by sobbing, or an inability to speak caused by crying. Based on this, English borrowed the word singult in the 16th century for a single sob, in the sense of something spasmodically interrupting your speech, and singultus came to be used as a more formal name for hiccups.

16. STERNUTATION

A sneeze or a sneezing fit is properly called a sternutation. Anything described as sternutatory causes sneezing.

17. TUSSICATION

Tussis is the Latin word for “cough.” It’s the origin of both tussication, a formal word for coughing, and pertussis, the medical name for whooping cough.

10 Words and Phrases You Won’t Believe Are More Than 100 Years Old

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They may have been on people’s tongues even earlier, but 1914 marks the earliest year the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary could document these words and phrases in print.

1. DOOHICKEY

The Oxford English Dictionary cleverly tells us that this word is a blend of doodad and hickey, defining the latter as “any small gadget or device; something of little consequence.” (The meanings “pimple” and “love bite” came later.) An unnamed writer in the U.S. publication Our Navy, November 12, 1914, says, “We were compelled to christen articles beyond our ken with such names as ‘do-hickeys’, ‘gadgets’ and ‘gilguys.'”

2. POSTMODERNISM

You might think that in 1914 folks were barely modern; how could they be contemplating postmodernism? Modern means current day, so people have always thought themselves modern—well, at least since 1456. To be fair, though, the postmodernism of 1914 is not the same as the movement in architecture, arts and literature that arose in the late 20th century—the one that preached “freedom from the tyranny of the new,” allowing creative people to mix old styles in with new ones. In 1914, Postmodernism was a reaction to Modernism, a movement in the Roman Catholic Church toward modifying traditional beliefs and doctrines in accordance with modern ideas and scholarship.

3. TIME TRAVEL

It’s a bit of a quirk that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t find printed evidence of the phrase time travel earlier than 1914; they trace time traveler to 1894. H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895 and he was quoted in the National Observer a year prior: “‘There,’ said the Time Traveller, ‘I am unable to give you an explanation. All I know is that the climate was very much warmer than it is now.’” (There’s no evidence that Wells coined the term global warming.)

4. ANTIVIRUS

In 1914, scientists knew only that viruses were infectious agents that could pass through filters that trapped bacteria, not that they typically consist of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat. Nonetheless, they were working on ways to combat virus infections in organisms, and a Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club for 1914 reported, “It was his opinion that an antivirus … was thus formed in the lower, healthy leaves which destroyed or rendered inert the virus ... ”

5. ADVERTORIAL

Advertorial, a blend of advertisement and editorial, is an ad or promotional material disguised as an editorial or objective report. So, you’d think the term would be bandied about the offices of a publication, but not blatantly emblazoned in print. There it is, though, as a headline in Rotarian, May 14, 1914: “A word to the women folk. An advertorial.”

6. ATOMIC BOMB

In a 1914 issue of English Review, guess who was apparently the first person to write about the possibility of an atomic bomb? Yes, H.G. Wells again: “Never before ... had there been a continuing explosive ...; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

7. CHUNNEL

Although the Channel Tunnel linking England and France across the English Channel was not started until 1988 and was completed in 1994, the concept was conceived as early as 1802. In the February 4, 1914 issue of The Sketch, K. Howard declared, “Another word that will be stolen from me ... is ‘Chunnel.' This, naturally, will be the pet name for the Channel Tunnel when we get it.” He was right: In 1957, a writer for The New York Times Magazine claimed his newspaper coined the term.

8. BIG SCREEN

More than 100 years ago, before there was television with its small screen to provide contrast, the big screen already meant the movies. California's Fresno Morning Republican on October 24, 1914 reported, “The stage hands will devise noise effects to help carry out the illusion on the big screen.”

9. LIGHT SPEED

Even the popular press was talking about light speed a hundred years ago. Maryland's Frederick Post, February 25, 1914 wrote, “Measuring light speed. Even in this speed mad age we can never hope to equal the speed of light.”

10. OY VEY

You might think this Yiddish expression (literally, “Oh, woe") didn’t enter English until the 1950s, but in the New York Evening Journal, February 17, 1914, H Hershfield wrote, “I can't see a thing ... Worse then [sic] a fog. Oh Vay!”

This article originally appeared in 2014.

Supper vs. Dinner: Is There a Difference?

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A linguist might be able to guess the general region you’re from based solely on what you call your evening meal. But as an article from Wide Open Eats explains, it isn’t just a matter of dialect. Dinner and supper really do mean different things—or at least they used to.

Historically, the word dinner was associated with the largest meal of the day, regardless of whether it was served in the morning, afternoon, or evening. The term comes from the non-Classical Latin word disjējūnāre, which is defined as breaking a fast.

Supper, on the other hand, is more time-specific. It stems from the Old French word souper, meaning an evening meal, and it's generally lighter than other meals served throughout the day. In other words, supper and dinner have more to do with the quantity of food that’s served than the time of day that you feast on them.

In the 1800s and perhaps even earlier, Americans in some rural regions started calling their midday meal dinner, while supper was reserved for the evening meal. This had more to do with occupation than location, though. In parts of the South and Midwest where farmers needed ample fuel to get them through the day, the midday meal was larger (hence the use of the term dinner). In the evening, supper typically involved a light soup, and the act of eating it was referred to as supping. Indeed, the word supper is related to suppe, the German word for soup.

This is still the norm in some parts of the U.S. As Wide Open Eats discovered through Google Trends, a search for “supper” is most common in Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.

This is also the case in some parts of the South. “If you grew up in the South post-colonial era, however, chances are your association with the words have more to do with colloquial etymology, rather than the time of day you sat down to eat,” Southern Living notes. “For example, you probably heard, 'supper’s ready,' just before Mama or Grandma placed a table-full of delicious dishes before you.”

However, supper is seldom used anymore—especially among younger generations—and dinner is by far the more popular term nationwide.

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