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 Old English Words You Need to Be Using

The Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' written in Old English
The Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' written in Old English
The 'Southwick Codex' (including Old English adaptations of Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Prose Dialogues of Saturn and Solomon, homily on St Quintin); 'the Nowell Codex' (including a homily on St Christopher, Marvels of the East; Beowulf and Judith), British Library // Public Domain

If you learn just 10 Old English words today, let them be these from Mark Forsyth's The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.

1. Uhtceare

“There is a single Old English word meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying.’ Uhtceare is not a well-known word even by Old English standards, which were pretty damn low. In fact, there is only one recorded instance of it actually being used."

2. Expergefactor

"An expergefactor is anything that wakes you up. This may simply be your alarm clock, in which case it is time to hit the snooze button. But it may be a dustman or a milkman or a delivery van, in which case it is time to lean out of your window and shriek: 'Damn you all, you expergefactors!' This ought to keep them quiet until one of them has at least found a good dictionary."

3. and 4. Pantofle and Staddle

“Once your toes are snugly pantofled, you can stagger off to the bathroom, pausing only to look at the little depression that you have left in your bed, the dip where you have been lying all night. This is known as a staddle.”

5. Grubbling

"It’s time to check whether you’ve got your keys and your phone and your purse or wallet. This is done by grubbling in your pockets. Grubbling is like groping, except less organized. It is a verb that usually refers to pockets, but can also be used for feeling around in desk drawers that are filled with knick-knacks and whatnot."

6. Mugwump

Mugwump is a derogatory word for somebody in charge who affects to be above petty squabbles and factions. So when your boss tries to make peace at the meeting table like an impartial angel, he is being a mugwump.” (The Mugwumps were also a group of rebellious Republicans who broke with their party to support the Democratic candidate in the 1884 U.S. presidential election. —Ed.)

7. Rawgabbit

"A rawgabbit, just in case you were wondering, is somebody who speaks in strictest confidence about a subject of which they know nothing. A rawgabbit is the person who pulls you aside and reveals in a careful whisper that the head of compliance is having an affair with the new recruit in IT, which you know to be utterly untrue because the head of compliance is having an affair with you, and the new recruit in IT hasn’t started yet."

8. Vinomadefied

“Once you are properly vinomadefied, all sorts of intriguing things start to happen. Vinomadefied, by the way, does not mean ‘made mad by wine,’ but merely ‘dampened by it.’”

9. Lanspresado

"A lanspresado is (according to a 1736 dictionary of thieves’ slang) 'He that comes into company with but two-pence in his pocket.' Lanspresados are everywhere. They have usually forgotten their wallets or can’t find [an ATM] or some intensely complicated thing has happened with their rent, which means that they’re skint until Thursday."

10. Vomitorium

“A vomitorium is not a room in which ancient Romans would throw up halfway through a banquet in order to make room for the next course. That’s a myth. A vomitorium is simply a passage by which you can exit a building, usually a theater.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

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