Wednesday, 13 January 2021

anatomically speaking

Many of the words that are used to describe parts of the human body have other uses and other meanings, although in many cases that alternative meaning is just a simple metaphor. For example, if you toe the line, you are conforming to a specified code of behaviour, as if keeping the foremost extremities of your feet behind an imaginary line. However, this particular metaphor is complicated by the observation that many people appear to think that the phrase is ‘tow the line’. This anomaly was first pointed out by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language, in which the author decried the tendency of contemporary writers to use metaphors without visualizing a concrete image as they did so. You can, of course, tow or pull a line, but it then becomes impossible to link that to the meaning of the phrase.

And what about someone being required to foot the bill? It’s hard to see the connection between one’s feet and being obliged, reluctantly, to pay for something. If you describe someone as a heel, you are suggesting that they are not a nice person, although, again, it’s difficult to see the connection. This term is probably not much used nowadays, like the upper-class British terms ‘cad’ and ‘bounder’; I would suggest that speakers on both sides of the Atlantic are now more likely to use words that reference the genitalia. ‘Heel’ is also used in phrases that describe a person’s financial status: ‘down at heel’ (poor) or ‘well-heeled (rich). Both are references to the type of footwear that would be worn by someone who can be described in such a way.

Staying with the lower extremities, I don’t think that the average American would shin up a rope, a ladder or a drainpipe, but I believe that they would know what I meant if I described them as doing so. To leg it, meaning to run away at speed, is also a term that doesn’t appear in the American lexicon, although once again the meaning is obvious. It is much less obvious why a stage in a multi-stage journey should be known as a leg, or why a match in a knock-out sporting competition is played over two legs to nullify home advantage. And any connection between one’s calf and the young of a cow appears to be completely arbitrary.

Moving upwards, to hamstring someone is to render them ineffective by imposing an obvious handicap. The origin of this term is less mysterious: it was once common practice to cut the hamstring muscles of domesticated but possibly dangerous animals so that they became more docile. But why someone who is up to speed with all the latest trends would be thought of as hip is not obvious, especially given that this use of the word appears to have originated with modern jazz, which in my view is anything but hip.

Internal features of human anatomy also appear in metaphorical contexts. For example, to rib someone is to tease them, presumably because such teasing is accompanied by a subtle nudge in the ribs, while a football manager might say “the last-minute defeat was hard to stomach, but we can take heart from the positive way we played throughout the game”. In the same vein, a main road might be described as ‘a major traffic artery’, and one might be required to shoulder responsibility, although this usage probably derives from one’s shoulders being the load-bearing part of the human body. The metaphorical nature of these words may be obvious, but it is not at all manifest why a wooden box-like structure would be called a chest, as in ‘treasure chest’ and ‘chest of drawers’.

The upper limbs also provide several words that can be used in a non-anatomical context. For example, arms is a much-used euphemism for ‘weapons’, a hand is an unskilled worker, as in ‘farm hand’ and ‘deck hand’, and you might be asked to ‘lend a hand’ or help out. A particularly tight hairpin bend on a road might be known locally as ‘the devil’s elbow’, while to finger someone is to betray them to the relevant authorities. And making the most/least of one’s assets in a given situation is often described as ‘making a good/poor fist’ of those assets. However, there appears to be no connection whatsoever between the palm of one’s hand and the tropical plant of the same name.

The head provides the last group of words that are used in non-anatomical contexts. For example, a mountain has faces, and we talk about a ‘cliff face’, while ‘to save face’ is to do something that ameliorates an otherwise embarrassing situation. With reference to speaking, cheek is casual insolence, while lip is more pointedly insulting language. We may talk about the brow of a hill on a road, the last section before the top. And someone who is annoyingly inquisitive, who is always looking into into other people’s business, is nosey, while the eye of a storm is the calm area in its centre. When a group of people sit around a table, there is always someone who is seated at the head of the table, and, more generally, an organization’s leader is often referred to as its head.

Finally, I might say that “there are no shops in my neck of the woods’’, which is true, even though woods don’t have necks, and I don’t live in a wood.

other language posts
Super Dooper
Animal Adjectives
Saying the Same Thing Twice


  1. what about cost someone an arm and a leg, lip service,fi.ger cross?

    1. I admit to having missed ‘costing an arm and a leg’, but your other suggestions are literal, not metaphorical, uses of the words.

    2. Can't be entirely sure of this but in Old Norse and Latin I think kista and cista mainly referred to boxes and containers so perhaps the anatomical meaning came after possibly as a container of the heart and lungs.

    3. Sounds plausible. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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