The origin of bone words

Skull

Temporal:
Comes from a Latin word meaning a correct mixture or balance in the sense of tempering a metal. It later came to mean a mental balance. It is related to the word temper which we have come to associate with its negative sense, i.e. to lose one’s temper.

Sphenoid: Many bones are named for their shape like this one which comes from the Greek sphēnoeidēs meaning wedge-like.

Orbit: The Latin word orbis had the meaning of round or spherical and referred to the shape of the eye sockets.

Nasal: Latin nasus meaning nose.

Nasal concha: Concha is the latin word for a shell or mollusk.

Vomer: This word means ploughshare or stylus in Latin and the bone is so named for its shape.

Lacrimal/Lacrymal: This bone, located in the eye socket, gets its name from the Latin word for tear, lacrima.

Ethmoid: From the Greek word ēthmos meaning sieve.

Zygomatic: Related to the Greek word zugon which mean yoke.

Palatine: The Latin word palatum has the meaning palate or sense of taste.

Hyoid: Named for its shape, this bone was thought to resemble the letter upsilon “υ” in Greek and in fact the word huoeidēs means upsilon-like.

Axial Skeleton

Scapula: Comes from the Latin scapulae “shoulder blades”, which in turn is related to the Greek skaphein meaning to “to dig out”. It is possible that the shoulder blades were used as digging tools in times past.

Clavicle: The Latin word clavicula has the meaning of small key, the diminutive form of clavis (so called because of its shape). It is a loan word from the Greek kleis which means “key, collarbone.”

Rib: Has its roots in the Old English rib, and ribb of Germanic origin and further related to Dutch rib(be) as well as the German Rippe with the meaning of “a covering”, from the Proto Indo European root rebh- meaning “roof.”

Vertebra: Comes from the Latin vertebra meaning “joint or articulation of the body, joint of the spine”, probably from vertere meaning “to turn” with the -bra suffix relating to the arms.

Manubrium: Come from the Latin manus (hand) with the meaning of handle or haft.

Sternum: Came to English through Latin via the Greek word for chest sternon.

Sacrum: From the Latin os sacrum, which itself is a translation of Greek hieron osteon “sacred bone.” This name may originate from the fact that the sacrum was often offered up as part of animal sacrifices.

Innominate: Comes from Latin innominatus meaning “nameless.”

Pelvis: Has its roots in the Latin word pelvis meaning “basin” (Old Latin peluis), and ultimately from the Proto Indo European root pel- meaning “container.”

Arm Bones

Humerus: Related to the Latin word for the upper arm or shoulder umerus.
Its roots have been traced to the Proto Indo European *omesos and to the Sanskrit amsah and Greek omos.

Radius: This word comes to English from Latin and as you may have guessed has something to do with the radius of a circle. The meaning was literally spoke (of a wheel, etc.) or ray.

Ulna: Although the relationship may not be apparent at first glance the words ulna and elbow are etymologically related. The Old English word eln shares an Indo-European root with the Latin ulna. The Old English word for elbow was elnboga which is broken down into eln “forearm” and boga “bend, bow.” There is a older Proto Indo-European root *el- meaning “forearm, elbow.”

Hand Bones

Scaphoid: Comes from two Greek words eidos or εἶδος meaning “like” or “resembling” and skaphe or σκάφη meaning a boat.

Lunate: From the Latin word lunaris meaning moon. Named for its crescent moon shape.

Triquetral: From Latin triquetrus meaning “three-cornered” or “triangular”.

Pisiform: Named for its resemblance (Latin: forma = shape) to a pea (Latin: pīsum).

Trapezium: Named for its trapezoidal shape. The Greek word trapeza meant “table” and is itself derived from two root words tra– “four” and peza “foot”. The latter word is related to the -pus in octopus and -ped in pedestrian and pedometer.

Trapezoid: See trapezium. Literally table (Greek: trapeza) shaped (Greek: eidos or εἶδος).

Capitate: From the Latin caput meaning “head”.

Hamate: Latin hamatus, from hamus meaning “hook”.

Leg Bones

Femur: Comes from the Latin word femur meaning thighbone.

Tibia: The same word in Latin was used for the shinbone but also had the meaning of “pipe” or “flute,” presumably because of it’s shape.

Fibula: Comes from the Latin word fibula, which meant “clasp, buckle, brooch” probably because its shape resembled that of a fastener. Etymonline suggests that it is probable related to the Greek perone, which had this meaning. On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary points to a possible relationship with the Latin figere meaning “to fix,” which in turn can be traced back to a PIE root *dhigw– (“to stick, to fix”).

Foot Bones

Calcaneus: Comes from the Latin calx, meaning heel as well as chalk. This in turn derives from the Greek χάλιξ meaning pebble or stone.

Talus: From the Latin talus meaning ankle. It is related to the Latin word taxillus, which was a small die, since dice were originally made from the anklebones of animals.

Navicular: Related to the English word navy. This bone was so named because of its similarity to a boat (navicula in Latin).

Cuneiform: From the Latin cuneus meaning “wedge”.

Cuboid: Named for its square shape.

Last Updated: 29 May, 2009

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Above photo modified from original by Aeioux under creative commons license.

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