The body and its parts

Not (yet) a report on the results of my little experiment, but an exploration of how the human body and its parts are viewed in websites that intend to be informative and instructive: a summary of the coverage in 10 websites, with from 12 to 42 terms listed.

The sources:

1. A worksheet for kids on “parts of the body” (12 terms):

2. A “picture of a person with body parts labeled” (15 terms):

3. An illustration of “body parts” (17 terms):

4. An illustration of “body parts” (32 terms):

5. Illustrations meant for learners of English (30 terms).
6. An illustration of human body parts” (20 terms).
7. An illustration of “body parts” (17 terms).
8. Wikipedia on “Common names of well known parts of the human body” (42 terms).
9. “Cram-up vocabulary body parts” (41 terms).
10. Buzzle article on “external body parts” (42 terms).

For the purposes of this study, I’m disregarding differences in phrasing between “body parts” and “parts of the body”; these sources tend to treat the two as interchangeable.

All the sources are pictorial or are specified as listing external (a.k.a. superficial) parts, so that, for instance, when stomach appears in the list (2 times), the word means ‘belly, abdomen’ and not the internal organ. (Rough) synonyms are grouped together; so bottom, bum, and buttocks have been grouped together (5 occurrences in all).

(Several of the sources, especially those aimed at kids, are quite modest — one Canadian source has the genital area covered by a maple leaf! — so that sexual parts are underrepresented in the list.)

The point of the exercise is to get a feel for which terms are the most basic — most available and most salient — and from the terms to infer which anatomical categories are most basic, most significant in the way we view the human body. (One of parts I was initially interested in, the armpit or underarm, gets only 1 mention.) The approach is familiar from other areas of vocabulary and categorization, in particular color terms and color categories — but the body domain is notably complex.

The results come in three groups: Group A, comprising parts with 5 or more mentions out of a possible 10:

10: knee, leg (2 items)
9: ear, elbow, head, mouth (4 items)
8: arm, eye, foot, hand, neck, shoulder (6 items)
7: finger(s), nose, toe(s) (3 items)
6: abdomen / belly / stomach, ankle, chin, wrist (4 items)
5:  bottom / bum / buttocks, breast, calf, cheek, forehead, thigh, thumb (7 items)

Group B, the dividing line between high frequency and low-frequency items, with only Adam’s apple (4 mentions) in it; and then Group C, with 1-3 mentions:

3: 7 items
2: 11 items
1: 21 items

The low-frequency items come from several sources: modesty (penis and vagina, 1 each, scrotum 2), the medical/anatomical register (thorax with 2, clitoris with 2), larger areas of the body (back 3, groin 3, chest 2, face 1), parts of  parts (heel 3, teeth 3, forearm 2, jaw 2, nostril 2, tongue 2, eyebrow 1, finger nail 1, knuckle 1, lip 1). and a few puzzles (hair 3, waist 2, fist 1). (But on the parts-within-parts thing, note that Group A has thigh, knee, and calf as well as leg; finger(s) and thumb as well as hand; ; ear, eye, mouth, nose, chin, cheek, and forehead as well as head; and toe(s) as well as foot. Plus Adam’s apple as well as throat. It looks like basic categorization works at several levels.)

More to come.

4 Responses to “The body and its parts”

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