Concavities

My explorations into the vocabulary for parts of the body began with the armpit, a (concave) area or region (or part) of the body that many people would be reluctant to call a bodypart (or body-part or body part) — a topic for another posting. It struck me that the ordinary English vocabulary was poor in words for concavities (though usually there are technical terms in anatomy for these areas), while being rich in words for areas of the body that project (nose, ears, lips, fingers, toes, elbows, knees, nipples, and so on).

Then yesterday Victor Mair posted on Language Log about the area (or web) between the thumb and forefinger, which has a label in Chinese (a metaphorical label Victor translated as “tiger’s maw”), but certainly doesn’t in English.

Armpit. This area might more reasonably have been called the shoulder pit, but then language develops as it will, not by conscious reasoning.

In any case, the area has two ordinary-language labels, armpit and underarm (and apparently in Scots and Northern English, oxter), plus the anatomical label axilla, which few people know or use.

Other pits. Analogous to the armpit are the inside of the elbow and the inside of the knee. These phrases — inside of the elbow, inside of the knee — are of course available for talking about these areas, but there are no standard lexical items for them in ordinary English. There are anatomical terms, cubital fossa and popliteal fossa, respectively, but these are even less commonly known than axilla. (Latin fossa ‘ditch, trench’. Anatomical terms are packed with metaphors.)

And there are are compounds, elbow pit and knee pit, formed on analogy to armpit, but though widely used, they haven’t made the trip from slang to standard.

The philtrum. Another concavity with no ordinary-language name: the vertical groove between the lip and the nose.

The perineum. From the Wikipedia entry:

In human anatomy, the perineum (Late Latin, from Greek περίνεος – perineos) is a region of the body including the perineal body and surrounding structures. There is some variability in how the boundaries are defined, but the term generally includes the genitals and anus.

… A wide variety of slang terms are commonly used for this area of the human body, most commonly “chode,” “gooch,” or “taint,” or even “the spot where God sewed us up” but they generally refer to a smaller, less inclusive area — just the surface skin region between the anus and the scrotum or vaginal opening.

Another theme here in labels for parts of the body: some labels apply to wider or narrower areas; that is, they’re ambiguous between more inclusive and more exclusive senses.

Back to the Tiger’s maw. English references to this area generally use the phrase between the thumb and forefinger (or index finger):

The five dots tattoo is a tattoo of five dots arranged in a quincunx, usually on the outer surface of the hand, between the thumb and the index finger. (link)

In the United Kingdom, the quincunx tattoo, on the web between thumb and forefinger, is a prison tattoo reflecting the view of women by those wearing it – Find Her, Follow Her, Finger Her, Fuck Her, Forget Her. (link)

Keep massaging the flap of skin between thumb and forefinger. (link)

Gokoku: Pressure point in fleshy area between thumb and forefinger. (link)

The last cite points to the significance of this area in martial arts and acupuncture: it’s the site of an important pressure/acupuncture point. So it would make sense for Chinese to have a label for it.

English has no widely used term, though the obvious thumb pit has been invented on occasion:

[on guitar picks] Alternatively you can just hold it with your unused fingers e.g. pinky and ring, or in your thumb pit. (link)

Even an anatomical label is hard to find, though given Latin pollex (genitive pollicis) ‘thumb’, we could hope for polliceal fossa.

6 Responses to “Concavities”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    One anatomical term I found is “first interdigital space.”

  2. mae Says:

    My yoga teacher calls them the eyes of the elbows.

  3. Rick Sprague Says:

    Tattoo artists refer to the inside of the elbow as the “ditch”.(I’m not sure about the back of the knee, though that may be so called as well.) I vaguely knew the Latin fossa, but never realized it was a literal translation.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    The tattoo artists’ ditch isn’t necessarily a translation; it’s a natural metaphor that could be freshly invented at any time.

  5. Little popliteal moments « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Other pits. Analogous to the armpit are the inside of the elbow and the inside of the knee. These phrases — inside of the elbow, inside of the knee — are of course available for talking about these areas, but there are no standard lexical items for them in ordinary English. There are anatomical terms, cubital fossa and popliteal fossa, respectively, but these are even less commonly known than axilla. (Latin fossa ‘ditch, trench’. Anatomical terms are packed with metaphors.) (link) […]

  6. IzzyCohen Says:

    Catanzaro is a town
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catanzaro
    at the “arch” [Hebrew קֶשֶׁת KeSHeT] (the area between your thumb and other fingers) at the southern tip of Italy. [Both Hebrew & Phoenician are Western Semitic with similar lexicons.]

    The Phoenicians considered Italy to be the right arm [Hebrew זרוע ZaRo3a] of Poseidon / Neptune washed by the seas. [Compare aNaToLia (now Turkey), the right arm of Hermes, also a peninsula being washed by the seas (N’TiLat Yad נטילה יד).] Giving the shin its ancient dental D/T-sound, KeTeT + ZaRo3a sounded like CaTanZaRo.

    Zaro is the name of a nearby river. You can hear “Cry me a river” sung by Victoria Zaro at
    http://tinyurl.com/o6oow29

    This derivation is consistent with the ancient name of Sicily: Trinacria,
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinacria
    from tri = 3 (in both Greek & Latin) + נקר NaKaR = puncture, pierce … that is, a trident (3 teeth) held in the right hand of Poseidon / Neptune.

    The triskelion flag of Trinacria, which is now the flag of Sicily, is weird.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Sicily
    It is actually a graphic word-play on the name PoSei-DoN from פות PoS (female pudenda, vulva, compare p_ssy) + DoN (dent-, teeth), rather scary from a Freudian viewpoint.

    If you reverse the Nep in Neptune to produce PaN+TeN, you get face + teeth, where TeN is the ancient sound of שֵׁן SHeN = tooth when the shin had a dental D/T-sound.

    In his left hand, Neptune/Poseidon held a woven net and a small shield. Reversed (because it is on the left/sinister side), סָרוּג SaRooG (knitted, woven) is Greece and TaRKe/targe (a small shield in other languages) is Crete.

    Ciao (probably cognate with Hebrew צא tzadi-aleph = go out, exit),
    Izzy
    cohen.izzy@gmail.com
    BPMaps moderator, https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/BPMaps/info

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