or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 09, 2005


So as I said yesterday, Jim and I were in Halifax on Friday. For lunch we were at some mall food court--don't ask--and I was seated facing a joint called Made In Japan Teriyaki Experience. One of the people working there was this good-looking thirtyish Japanese guy (I think he was Japanese-looking, but Margaret Cho has this comedy routine about how everyone assumes she can magically tell Vietnamese from Chinese from Tibetan just because she's Korean, and I'm no better at it than she is, so let's just say he was Asiatic), and so naturally as I was eyeballing him I started thinking about the epicanthic fold, or more accurately about its etymology.

The epicanthic fold, as you probably know and if you don't soon will, is the crease in the upper eyelid that Asian people generally don't have and everyone else generally does. (There are lots of exceptions that it's much too boring to detail, but this guy definitely didn't have epicanthic folds.) "Epi-", I knew, is the Greek prefix meaning, variously, "on", "over", "near", "around", and a few other things, depending on context, and I've always wondered how they managed to make do with so few prepositions, but then I'm not a linguist. It's the "-canthic" part that I couldn't figure out. The only words I knew that had a similar sound and feel were "cantharides", which is to say "Spanish fly", a toxic preparation made from a kind of beetle and used as a theoretical aphrodisiac, and "canthaxin", which is an orange dye taken orally to simulate a tan. I was pretty sure these words were unrelated to "-canthic", and I need hardly say they're not: the last two syllables of "epicanthic" comes from Greek "kanthos", which is, with remarkable specificity, the angle formed by the meeting of the eyelids. (They had a word for that, and not one for "over" that distinguished it from "near"?)

After I had sorted that out, a couple of other interesting anatomical terms popped into my head, and I naturally began to wonder about their etymologies, too, and if they had managed to leave any offspring in English.

The xiphoid process is something I had learned about back in CPR class, because I'd been told that it's something you don't want to snap off. "Xiphoid" comes from Greek "xiphos", a type of double-bladed one-handed sword. The "-oid" in "xiphoid" (or "humanoid", for that matter) is a Greek suffix that means "-shaped", and a process, anatomically, is an outgrowth, so the xiphoid process may be translated as "sword-shaped sticky-outy-thingie", which is just what it is; it projects downwards from the sternum, and if you try to perform CPR in the wrong anatomical location, you can break it off, at which point it is probably going to lodge in the liver and cause some unintended damage. But other than "xiphoid process", "xiphos" has left no other traces in English that I can find, with good reason; it's not the most flexible of words. I could be wrong about this, of course.

Finally, I needed to look up something called the zygomatic arch, which is to say the bony structure that runs along the underside of the eye socket and around the side of the face. (Why do I know such a term? I don't know. Things stick in my brain. It's a big pool of quicksand, and whatever falls in doesn't get out.)

My usual technique of mentally breaking apart words and playing with the syllables got me as far as the first syllable of "zygomatic", when I realized that it surely has to be related to "zeugma", a figure of speech that, as it happens, I used in yesterday's posting. (Bonus points, whatever they are, if you can find it.) And sure enough, the two words are related; they're from Greek "zugoun", "to join", because the zygoma connects the front of the face to the side and the zeugma joins two unrelated meanings of words into a single phrase.

God, I love etymology.


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