Logic and the Language of Anatomy

commThe language of anatomy can be something that either entices students in to learn more or can act as a really barrier to their engagement. The vast majority of us are no longer taught Latin or Greek in school and so the terms that were maybe in everyday usage a few centuries ago are now archaic and their meaning lost to many. Yet if you know the meaning of these words the anatomical names suddenly make a lot more sense and you can even work out what things might be called.language

A recent publication ‘The secret language of anatomy’ looks at some of these phrases and a friend of mine, Kat Sanders, recently got to the final of fame lab talking about the same subject. If you haven’t heard of fame lab then you need to look at this years final. Not only do you get to hear Kat talking about anatomical language you also get to see the rapping epileptic who won it. Outstanding!


The important thing to get across to students is that if the effort is put in to learn the terminology then this can pay dividends.

Anatomy is tested by spot tests. Something I used to hate but now actually love and something that has to be experienced before you can understand just how terrifying they can be. You are placed in front of a specimen with a question or simply an arrow pointing to something and given 30 seconds to answer. A bell rings and you move onto the next one, and the next one and the next one. If you panic at the first one and don’t answer it in time and spend your next 30 seconds worrying about the fact you haven’t answered the first one then you are on a slippery slope to a very low score.

The answer is to keep calm, take your time to work out what you are looking at and then be precise. Last year I was taking one of these tests. It was on the limbs and I was studying the trunk so I wasn’t expecting to score well, I was taking it for the practice of taking spot tests (yes I do try and prepare that much). The bell went and I had infront of me an angiogram. Ok, it says it’s an angiogram so I am looking at blood vessel, probably arteries. I can see the outline of a leg in the x ray and I can see a big letter L in the corner, so I am looking at the blood supply of the left leg. The arrow is pointing to something infront of the bone of the leg so I am going to call it the anterior tibial artery of the left leg. With no knowledge, but an understanding of how anatomists name things I have just scored 2 points.

Some things aren’t so easy. I remember the epiploeic membrane. Could I remember that name? No. Ok, so why is it called epiploic? Pleo is Greek for to float upon. The epiploic membrane sits on top of the intestines like a great sea of mesentery. You can understand why it was named as that. They aren’t all so easy to understand but even some of the weirder ones stick in your mind. Saphenous is Greek for evident or obvious so that vein up the back of your leg is actually called the obvious vein, because you can’t really miss it.

conclaveI recently managed to apply this knowledge the other way. Whilst on holiday I read Robert Harris’ new book Conclave. (Very good book – you should read it.). As the title suggests this was about the election of a new pope and there were a lot of use of the word genuflect. I didn’t know what that meant. I did know that the blood vessels around the knee are called genicular arteries and veins so genu could well mean knee. Flec relates to flexion. Was genuflecting the practice of bending ones knee? The little bob that priests give infront of alters. Spot on!

Not only is it possible to apply knowledge of words to work out anatomy names, it’s possible to go the other way. Anatomy is everywhere.



Author: Anatomy Fundamentals

Janet Philp has spent a lifetime exploring fitness and wellbeing. Starting in group exercise, travelling through rugby to representing the UK at martial arts before including Yoga, meditation, Budokon and personal instruction. Her passion is anatomical function and educating people to use their bodies to their full potential.

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