Excerpted from Muscle, The Gripping Story of Strength and Movement, Chapter One, Discovery and Description

While interest in and knowledge of anatomy increased steadily during the Renaissance, differentiating and naming the newly observed muscles proceeded with fits and starts. Andreas Vesalius, in his landmark anatomy tome of 1543, tended to number them. In addition to naming two jaw muscles and the six-pack, he also named an arm muscle the anterior cubitum flectentium musculus[NG1] —though it seems, in this case, a nice succinct number would have been more user-friendly. Had all the muscles retained numbers, however, it could get cumbersome if somebody asked you to flex your number 489 and you couldn’t remember which one it was, out of the roughly 650 that humans have.

Fortunately, anatomists after Vesalius pitched in and gave the muscles descriptive names and renamed the anterior cubitum flectentium musculus the biceps. That’s part of the good news. The bad news is that because Latin was the language of science at the time, some of the names may seem foreign to those of us whose Latin skills are languishing. The other part of the good news is that with a uniform Latin terminology, anatomists and health-care providers around the world could and continue to communicate clearly with one another; and with a bit of linguistic dissection, the names are not all that foreign.

Some of the original names were outright poetic. Consider, for instance, the contributions of Jan Jesenius (1566–1621), a Bohemian physician, politician, and philosopher. He named the muscles controlling the eyeball’s movement amatorius (muscle of lovers), superbus (proud muscle), bibitorius (muscle of drinkers), indignatorius (muscle of anger), and humilis (muscle of lowliness). Twenty years later Jesenius was executed, but it was his political allegiance rather than his muscle naming that got him in trouble. It is too bad that in 1895 anatomists standardized the nomenclature and dully renamed the eye muscles according to their location (superior, inferior, medial, lateral) and alignment (rectus [straight] and oblique). In fact, contraction of the medial rectus muscles would make one cross-eyed, so maybe the Terminology Committee should have left them as the muscle of drinkers (bibitorius).

Most names are straightforward and need only a smattering of Latin to understand. For instance, some muscles received names according to their location, such as the subclavius (under the clavicle) and the intercostales externi (external layer, between the ribs). Others are named by the number of their parts: Bi- means two, and the biceps has two origins, one from the shoulder blade, one from the upper arm bone. The triceps has three origins, and the quadriceps has . . . well, guess.

Muscle, The Gripping Story of Strength and Movement, launches July 25, 2023. Order now.

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