Fornix, Fornicate, and Fascinating Etymologies

By JE Mariano (Class 2023)

It’s in class that I first encountered the word fornix, which in neuroanatomy is a bundle of nerve fibers in the brain. Automatically I thought of fornicate (they share the first five letters: it’s a sensible reaction). As someone fond of etymology, I wondered if these two words, with their vastly distant definitions, could be traced to a common root. A wikipedia article later and I discovered that they do, in fact, have a similar origin. Fancy that.

It is this moment of curiosity and subsequent thrill of discovery that compelled me to write this article – a list of six anatomical terms, each paired with a word that at first seems unrelated but with whom, in fact, it shares its etymology. May your reading this be as fun as my researching and writing it. 

macula and macchiato


macula: a small oval area of the retina, with special photoreceptor cones, that is specialized for acuity of vision

macchiato: espresso topped with a thin layer of foamed milk


One is your go-to order at Starbucks, the other what you use to ogle the cute barista at Starbucks – curious pairing, eh? Macula in Latin means “spot” or “stain,” which makes sense in that the anatomical macula is a dark area (a spot) near the center of the retina. From this Latin root stemmed the Italian macchia, such that caffè macchiato literally translates to “stained coffee,” or coffee with a spot of milk.

phrenic and frenzy


phrenic: relating to the diaphragm, as in phrenic nerve

frenzy: a temporary madness; a violent mental or emotional agitation


In early Greece, the diaphragm was a fascinating subject. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle postulated it to be a metaphysical structure concerned with the soul and with the process of thought. Later scholars believed this idea was a result of confusion stemming from the practice of using phrenes as a collective term for the pericardium and diaphragm and from the thought that the heart was the seat of intelligence, ergo linking the diaphragm with intelligence. [1]

Hippocrates cited this in asserting that the brain, not the heart nor the diaphragm, was the seat of the mind: “Wherefore, I say, that it is the brain which interprets the understanding. The diaphragm has obtained its name from accident and usage, and not from reality or nature, for I know of no power which it possesses, either as to sense or understanding, except that when the man is affected with unexpected joy or sorrow, it throbs and produces palpitations, owing to its thinness…it then perceives beforehand more of these things which occur in the body, but has received its name vaguely and without any proper reason, like the parts about the heart, which are called auricles, but which contribute nothing toward hearing. Some say we think with the heart, and this is the part which is grieved and experiences care. But it is not so; only it contracts like the diaphragm, and still more so from the same causes.” Ain’t he brilliant?

As a result, the root phren has two meanings: the diaphragm and the mind. From the first meaning, we get the adjective phrenic, as in phrenic nerve; from the second, the word frenzy (previously spelled phrenzy), as well as phrenology and schizophrenia. [2]

infundibulum and confound


infundibulum: any of various funnel-shaped organs or parts, such as: the hollow conical process of gray matter connecting the pituitary gland to the hypothalamus; the calyx of a kidney; and the abdominal opening of a fallopian tube

confound: to throw (a person) into confusion or perplexity; to fail to discern differences between: mix up


The Latin root fundo means to “pour.” Compounding it to make infundibulum gives the definition “funnel,” hence its use in anatomy. Combining fundo with con- (“with, together”) results in “mix together, stir up,” thus the word confound as we know and use it.

carpal and carpet


carpal: relating to the wrist; the bones of the wrist

carpet: a heavy, often tufted, fabric used as a floor covering; also: a floor covering made of this fabric


The Latin word carpus is derived from the Greek karpós, meaning “wrist.” Straightforward enough in the case of carpal as an anatomical adjective. But what does a rug have to do with the wrist? The root carp- translates to “pluck,” an action performed by the wrist. The carpet was so called probably because it was made from unravelled, shredded (plucked) fabric. In addition, the root carp- also means “seize,” hence the famous encouraging words carpe diem or “seize the day.”

fascicle and fascism


fascicle: a small bundle (as of muscle cells or nerve fibers)

fascism: a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition


This pair is actually easily sensible if you think about it. The Latin fascis, from which the word fascicle is derived, means “bundle,” or more specifically – a bundle of equal wooden rods tied together and to an ax. In ancient Rome, fasces represented authority and were carried by minor officials (lictores), who preceded the high magistrates in procession. 

The fascio littorio as a symbol “embodied Mussolini’s desire to forge fascist Italians and employ his totalitarian power as artist-politician to create an undifferentiated, harmonious, and disciplined whole. The fascio, in which rods were fastened together and became indistinguishable, iconographically portrayed the desired unity of Italians under the leadership of Mussolini.” [3] 

And that leads us finally to…

fornix and fornicate


fornix: an anatomical arch or fold, such as: a body of nerve fibers lying beneath the corpus callosum, with which they are continuous posteriorly and serve to integrate the hippocampus with other parts of the brain; the junction where the conjunctiva lining the eyelid meets the conjunctiva overlying the sclera; and the vaulted upper part of the vagina surrounding the cervix

fornicate: to commit fornication: consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other


In Latin, fornix means “arch” or “vault.” In ancient Rome, prostitutes would wait for customers out of the rain under vaulted ceilings. Fornix thence became a euphemism for brothels and fornicare referred to a man visiting a brothel.

And that brings us to the end of this article. It is my hope, dear reader, that this brief list sparked some interest in the fascinating world of word origins. Anatomy is a tortuous, potentially torturous, subject, and a knowledge of etymology will come a long way. 

What curious word origins will you discover today?

References

[1] Fritts, H.W. (1976). On the nature of the diaphragm; the evolution of three viewpoints. Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, 87: 16-25

[2] O’Rahilly, R. (2008). Etymology of Thoracic Terms. In Dartmouth College [website]. Retrieved 20 Jul 2019 from https://www.dartmouth.edu/~humananatomy/resources/etymology/Thoracic_viscera.htm

[3] Falasca-Zamponi, S. (1997). Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Definitions from Merriam-Webster and Moore’s Clinically Oriented Anatomy (8th ed.)


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