Angus B. Grieve-Smith grvsmth at
Sat Mar 19 16:06:13 UTC 2011

On 3/19/2011 5:39 AM, alex gross wrote:
> "A. Take the two bones in our lower arm. The only names we have for 
> them today are ulna and radius. These are the 'scientific names,' the 
> ones medical people--and few others--learn. Those bones are important 
> to you every day, yet you have no everyday way of referring to them at 
> all. But there is clear evidence from historical linguistics that 
> these bones once had other names. The ulna was once called the 'el,' 
> the radius possibly something like the 'spoke.' We know about the 'el' 
> from Seventeenth Century poetry (maid to lover: 'if I give you an 
> inch, you'll soon take an el') but also from modern German, where the 
> words are die Elle and die Speiche."

     An ell is also a unit of length equivalent to one's forearm; it's 
mostly used in measuring coils of rope and such.  I've known this from a 
young age, although maybe it's because my father was an audio engineer 
who studied classics and Old English at the graduate level.  It's also 
used in the /Lord of the Rings/ where Sam measures a rope in ells.

     I dispute whether the bones are important to me every day.  Sure, I 
use them all the time, but how often do I have to discuss one of them?  
I would venture to say never in my life.  I've known the words "radius" 
and "ulna" since I was at least ten years old, and I still don't know 
which is which.  I don't see anything wrong with using vague words like 
"arm" and "forearm," and leaving the specialized terms to the 
specialists.  If someone said to me, "she broke her el," instead of "she 
broke her arm," I wouldn't feel particularly better informed.

				-Angus B. Grieve-Smith
				grvsmth at

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