or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Cry Me A River

My poor Jim has a minor eye infection, and as he was looking into the mirror this morning checking out the damage, he asked, "What's the name of that little thing in the corner of the eye?"

"Lacrimal caruncle," I promptly replied, to which he said, "Well, mine is about three times its normal size." Yikes!

"Lacrimal caruncle" is such an interesting term--no wonder it stuck in my head. (Lots of the body parts have fascinating names, such as the xiphoid process.) Most parts of the body have Latin, or Latinate, names that tell us where they are, what they're shaped like, or what they do, and this one is no exception.

The first half is from Latin "lacrima", "tear"; Answers.com gives as an alternate spelling "lachrymal". The OED says that "lacrimal" is the etymologically correct spelling and the usual one in medical contexts: mediaeval Latin writers took up the habit of replacing "-c-" before "-r-" with "-ch" in words such as "anchor" (Greek "ankura" became Latin "ancora" and then mediaeval Latin "anchora") and it stuck. Even if you don't know the word "lacrimal" (or "lachrymal"), you might have heard the related "lachrymose", "weepy, tearful".

"Caruncle" is straightforward Latin: "caruncula", diminutive of "caro", "flesh", otherwise familiar from such English words as "carnal", "carnivorous" ("flesh-eating"), and "carnation".

So the lacrimal caruncle ought to be "the little fleshy thing in proximity to the tear ducts", and by gum, that's exactly what it is.

Jim later asked me jokingly, "What did you call that thing? Lacrimal curmudgeon?" And this of course got me to wondering where "curmudgeon" came from. I was fairly sure it would be of unknown origin, and unfortunately that is the case. (The OED summarily dismisses a couple of folk etymologies: origin unknown, they say, and who would know better?) I have to say, though, that the word fits its subject perfectly: rather like Mark Twain's Eve naming the dodo a dodo because it looks like one, someone must have simply said to some old grump one day, "Well, you're just a curmudgeon", and that was that.


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