The hollow

In a comment on my 9/14/19 posting “Clavicular knobs” (aka Ricardo’s acromia), Robert Coren writes about “the hollow space above the inner end of the collar-bone”, and I confess to not knowing a name for it. Roger Phillips (in England) fills in:

It’s not in Merriam-Webster, but all my British dictionaries have “saltcellar” for the collarbone pit. The first OED citation is:

[1870 O. Logan Before Footlights 26] I was a child of the most uninteresting age..a tall scraggy girl, with red elbows, and salt cellars at my collar-bones, which were always exposed, for fashion at that time made girls of this age uncover neck and arms.

The item has a complex social and cultural distribution, but knowing this much eventually led me to the technical term from anatomy: the suprasternal, or jugular, notch. Sometimes referred to in ordinary language as the hollow of the neck or the neck hollow.

The OED2 entry for the relevant noun saltcellar / salt-cellar / salt cellar

colloquial. Each of the pronounced hollows at the base of a thin neck. (Usually with reference to young women.)

All the cites refer to young women, all are uncomplimentary in tone, and all are British or Australian (the one Australian cite being from novelist Patrick White, who was educated in England). That’s remarkably specific socioculturally.

The variants neck hollow and hollow of the neck have no OED entries, though they’re certainly attested — presumably because the editors thought they were entirely transparent semantically (involving only a contextual specialization of hollow).

Meanwhile, a Mental Floss column, “30 Old (and Useful) Slang Names for Parts of the Body” by Paul Anthony Jones on 1/9/19 introduces yet another variable, age (vs. currency) of the item (the OED’s most recent cite is the Patrick White, from 1964; the one right before that is from a Clemence Dane novel of 1917):

In 19th century slang, the small round hollow between the collarbones at the base of the neck — and in particular a young woman’s neck — was nicknamed the salt-cellar, a [metaphorical] reference to the small bowls or basins of salt used in kitchens. (That hollow’s proper anatomical name, incidentally, is the suprasternal notch.)

The basis for the metaphor:


(#1) Early Victorian sterling silver salt cellars (from an auction site)

The actual bodypart:


(#2) Illustration from the Science Direct site (note labeled clavicle and, yes, an acromion — remember Ricardo’s acromia?)

The suprasternal notch, also known as the fossa jugularis sternalis, or jugular notch, is a large, visible dip in between the neck and the two collarbones of the human anatomy. The jugular notch is found at the superior [that is, the top] border of the manubrium [the handle-shaped upper part] of the sternum [the breastbone], between the clavicular notches. (Wikipedia link)

Unlike saltcellar, names like suprasternal notch and neck hollow are free of associations with young women, disapproving attitudes, etc. They do seem to be the object of a modestly common (and entirely harmless) paraphilia. And in any case, some people might reasonbly be judged to possess especially attractive neck hollows. Actor Jared Padalecki as the character Sam Winchester in the tv series Supernatural, for instance:


(#3) Shirtless and well-hollowed (also an object of admiration for fans of inguinal ligaments)

3 Responses to “The hollow”

  1. Stewart Kramer Says:

    The 1870 citation has the plural “salt cellars at my collar-bones” — To me, that suggests the supraclavicular fossae (the hollows above the clavicle), and possibly the infraclavicular fossae and jugular notch as well. Salt cellars are often oval (so the spoon can fit the long way). If she stands or sits, the salt would fall out of her jugular notch, but it would be possible to carry salt in an upward-facing hollow (no limbo-dancing required).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Yes, I was concerned about the plural and probably shouldn’t have disregarded it. You’re almost surely right: supraclavicular fossae rather than the suprasternal / jugular notch.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    The supraclavicular fossae (the term doesn’t appear on the diagram, but I assume it refers to the area between the clavicle and the trapezius) are definitely what I was talking about in my earlier comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: