The Language of Anatomy
Anatomy and physiology can be intimidating subjects for new students. This intimidation may result from the commonly held belief that taking a class in these subjects requires endless memorization. This is a misconception. Students who have worked with me as an anatomy and physiology tutor or instructor know that I discourage students from approaching the study of these subjects as an exercise in pure memorization.
Instead, I never hesitate to emphasize that the key is to learn to recognize and apply patterns.
Another academic pursuit which involves recognition and application of patterns is studying a language. But is language really another subject? I argue that learning anatomy requires learning a new language: the language of anatomy. This is a complex language that draws on several other languages, most importantly Greek and Latin. This is good news for students with a background in Greek or Romance languages, but what about the rest of us?
It isn't necessary to learn these languages, but it is important to add to your anatomy vocabulary as you progress in your studies. One technique I encourage is to look up the English meaning of anatomical terms as they are encountered. These translations often relate to the appearance or function of structures defined by these terms; therefore learning these translations helps to reinforce this information and improve recall. High quality textbooks will include these translations as appropriate terms are introduced.
Building Your Vocabulary Through Association
Oftentimes, learning about these translations can lead to fun explorations into the origins of anatomical terms, making them impossible to forget. In some cases, the chain that connects the meaning of the anatomical term to its function in the body has several links, like a linguistic game of telephone.
One of my favorite examples of this is the acetabulum. This is a prominent feature of the skeleton that most anatomy students learn early on. From a standing position, lift your knee up so that your thigh is parallel to the ground. This motion is hip flexion and in order for this movement to occur, the prominent spherical head of the femur rotates within the deep socket formed by the three bones that combine to form the hip bone (ilium, ischium, and pubis) — the acetabulum.
The Vinegar Socket?
That’s an odd word. How can we remember it? Start by looking at the word – does any part of it seem familiar? Those of you with a background in chemistry might recognize the root “acet” which is the same root used in acetic acid. You might also know that acetic acid is what gives vinegar its distinctive tangy taste. So what is the relationship between vinegar and the hip socket?
Notice its deep concave shape. The shape of this socket reminded early anatomists of the shape of small jars of vinegar that were in popular usage at the time (see below). Hence the hip socket was effectively named as the vinegar container of the body.
After learning that, how can you forget the name of the acetabulum? With a little bit of curiosity and research, a complicated 5-syllable word is turned into an object that’s easy to remember and visualize. This is an example of how to use associations to learn and apply the language of anatomy, one of the many examples of this technique that I like to share with my students to help enrich their understanding of the human body and enhance their general knowledge.
So next time you enjoy a tasty relish, salad dressing, or pickle, remember how vinegar relates to the skeletal system and how you can use word associations and translations to help build your vocabulary in the language of anatomy.