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July 20, 2018  |  Friday words #130  |  1482 hit(s)

Our summer is taking a break—it's 57 degrees (14 Celsius) as I write, and it's well into the morning. Sad.

Today we're all about classical roots. For starters, I have a couple of new-to-me words today that are related to digits. Not math, tho. Term number 1: I was reading about raptors the other day and ran across the word hallux. From the article I was reading, I learned that on, say, an eagle, this is the "toe" that points backward:

Then I looked up hallux, and discovered that the first definition is actually "big toe," like the ones on your feet. This sense is used in medicine: hallux valgus is yer two-dollar word for a bunion. Kind of interestingly, hallux was introduced into medical talk only in the 1830s, and isn't even real Latin; it seems to be based on a word allex, which seems to have been used to mean "thumb." Bonus related word: hallucal, meaning "of or relating to the big toe." Look for opportunities to slip that one into conversation.

My other digit-related term today is dactyloscopy. If you know your Greek roots, this one might be clear—it's a fancy term (again!) for the science of reading fingerprints. (dactyl="finger", scope/scopy="examine") I wonder whether they ever use that on the TV show CSI.

For origins today, I saw something on Twitter this week that really surprised me. Allison DeJordy, who works at Merriam-Webster, had a tweet about the word placenta. The word placenta is a medical name, of course. We have many medical terms that come from classical roots, as we know; why, we just discussed a few of them a moment ago. So it's not surprising that we have a Latin term for this particular organ.

What did surprise me, tho, was that placenta is not just the Latin word for "afterbirth," the way that dactyl is the Greek word for "finger." In Latin, placenta referred to a kind of flat cake made from grain and cheese. In medieval times, when anatomists were naming parts of the body, the word placenta was added to the medical lexicon apparently because the organ resembles the flat cake in question. Does this seem as surprising to you as it did to me?

As an aside, and in case you're curious, someone found a recipe in Cato for making the cake that the Romans called placenta. But I'm not sure I'm that interested in making it.

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