Imagine trying to tell someone who doesn’t speak English well that after having your wisdom teeth removed, you slipped and hit your noodle, then banged your funny bone. It sounds more like a children’s rhyme than a real-life accident, but quirky anatomical vocabulary has been commonplace for centuries. Let’s dive deeper into the history of some unique nicknames for body parts in English.
“Noodle” is another word for “head,” but a version of this nickname has been around for centuries longer than the better-known, pasta-related usage of the word (which first showed up in the mid-18th century). Various spellings of “noddle” (meaning “head” or “back of head”) have been used since at least the mid-15th century, and the term turned into “noodle” by the mid-18th century (probably because of the similarity to the pasta word). The slang, which came from the Latin nodulus (“small knot”), was originally used pejoratively, in the context of stupidity. Today it has a milder usage, but it’s still not wholly complimentary. Someone might say, “Use your noodle!” to urge another to pay more attention.
Our third and final set of four molars usually appears between the ages of 17 and 25. The “wise” name came from the timing of when the teeth are typically cut (that is, when they break through the gums). As adolescents approach adulthood, their knowledge (or wisdom) supposedly grows — as do their teeth.
The term “wisdom teeth” has been used in English since the mid-19th century, but people have been nicknaming these molars for thousands of years. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was one of the first documented sources to name the teeth, referring to them as sophronisteres, or “prudent teeth.” In ancient Rome, the Latin phrase was dentes sapientiae, which means “wisdom teeth.” The Latin phrase was translated directly into English. Several other languages borrow the same sentiment for their versions of “wisdom teeth”:
Spanish: Muelas del juicio (“teeth of judgment”)
French: Dents de sagesse (“wisdom teeth”)
Arabic: Ders-al-a’qel (“teeth of the mind”)
Japanese: Oyashirazu (“unknown to the parents”)
Korean: Salangni (“love teeth”)
Turkish: Yirmi yaş dişleri (“20th-year teeth”)
The Achilles tendon, located at the back of the leg, connects the calf muscle to the heel. Its name is rooted in Greek mythology, after the hero Achilles, whose one vulnerability was a spot located just above his heel. Legend says that when Achilles was a baby, his mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him immortal and impervious to injury. However, she held baby Achilles by his heel, which left him vulnerable there and eventually led to a mortal injury. The phrase “Achilles’ heel” is not an anatomical term, but it metaphorically refers to a weak point.
If you’ve ever accidentally hit your funny bone on the edge of a table, you know the tingling sensation is anything but funny. This spot at the back of the elbow gets its name from an anatomical play on words. It’s not a literal bone; rather, it’s the spot where the ulnar nerve rests unprotected against the humerus (the upper arm bone), making it especially susceptible to pain. The wordplay comes from the homophones “humerus” (referring to the bone) and “humorous” (an adjective meaning “funny”). Using “funny bone” to describe this part of the elbow began in English in the 1820s.
A visible bump at the front of the throat is a laryngeal prominence, better known as an “Adam’s apple.” Everyone has this piece of cartilage that covers the voice box (or larynx), but it grows in size during puberty and typically becomes larger in males, which is where the moniker stems from.
In Judeo-Christian tradition, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman. Their story says that a forbidden fruit (often depicted as an apple) became stuck in Adam’s throat when he ate from the Tree of Knowledge after being forbidden to do so by God, and this is the origin of the term “Adam’s apple.” The anatomical nickname has been used in English to describea laryngeal prominence since the mid-18th century.