Languages and Linguistics


We lost a fantastic voice yesterday with the death of Maya Angelou, but we are much richer for having had her with us through some of our most momentous times. In Japan, there’s a national tradition of making designating those people who contribute greatly to the arts and culture of their nation “living national treasures.” Britain does something similar with its knighthoods (like Sir Terry Pratchett, knighted for “services to literature”), and the Navajo have the less formal designation of Valuable Person. Maya Angelou was all those rolled into one lovely juggernaut.

I was pleased to see that, the same day she passed away, another literary figure of my generation’s childhood stood up to bring some of that American spirit back into our mainstream. If you haven’t already heard about LaVar Burton’s kickstarter to restore Reading Rainbow, you’re missing out!You aren’t behind the times, though; the campaign was funded within a day. Now, every dollar goes towards bringing the program to more kids and schools.

Everyone in my family is backing the project, since the original program was such a part of our lives and we want everyone to have the opportunity to learn and love reading…and perhaps a little bit because we couldn’t agree to share the book.

Just when I thought that med students couldn’t take a joke to save their lives (the immuno jokes come from a guy who swapped the clinic for the lab years ago), Dr. D introduced us to the rich tradition of mnemonics.

There are thousands of essential things to remember for clinical anatomy. It’s not just knowing the names of the bones or the muscles, but understanding the development, the interactions, the variations, and how it can all go wrong. Sometime later we’re supposed to learn how to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again. In the meantime, the mantra is simply “don’t kill the patient.” It helps that this is not a concern relevant to our first patient.

As we go through the process of cramming all of the information into our leaky skulls, it’s useful to have a few phrases handy to jog your memory. The older students and professors pass these down with great zeal and ceremony. I’d love to share them all with you, but all the best ones are extremely dirty. Here are a few of the more drab, socially acceptable examples:

  • C5,6,7 keeps the wings from going to heaven
    • The serratus anterior muscles are what keep your shoulder blades flat against your back. Without them, your shoulder blades would fan out like wings whenever you pushed on anything, hence the term “winged scapula.” It’s also responsible for the alarmingly rippled, triangular chest of the western superhero. Yeah, Batman! They’re innervated by the imaginatively titled “long thoracic nerve,” which arises from the 5th, 6th, and 7th cervical nerves. This is one of the few nerves that actually runs on top of the muscle, so it is very easily damaged. The moral of this story is: don’t get into a knife fight…unless you’re Batman. That armor’s better than kevlar.
  • I ate ten eggs at twelve
    • In order for you to breathe, you have to be able to manipulate the pressure in your lungs. Part of this is done with the muscles that run between your ribs, but most of the work is done by the diaphragm, a big muscle that seals the bottom of your ribcage. However, you can’t have a perfect seal; you still have to get food to your stomach and blood to the lower part of your body! To do this, 3 tubes have to pass through the diaphragm: the esophagus, the aorta (the major artery), and the inferior vena cava (the major vein). They do these at different points relative to the vertebrae, which are numbered. The IVC crosses at the spinal level T8. The esophagus goes through at T10, and the aorta goes through at T12.
    • As a bonus, this is how you get hiccups. The only one of those three structures that passes through the muscular part of the diaphragm is the esophagus (the IVC goes through the tendon, and the aorta kinda sneaks in behind everything, right along the spine). The contractions of the diaphragm and the contractions of your esophagus have to be coordinated so they don’t work at cross-purposes. When they get out of synch, you hiccup.
  • The poo-dendal*
    • I bet you can guess where the pudendal nerve is.

*This is actually a new one this year, courtesy of my friend Raven.

Accomplishments so far this week:

  • Correct conversational use of the word borborygm – the grumbling of the bowels
  • Ability to find a stranger’s aorta without cutting them open (note: it does help to introduce yourself first)
  • Identification of the tenderloin, which looks suspiciously like what you find in the grocery store.
  • Ability to make jokes about nitrous oxide and the SodaStream, thanks to a strange confluence of muscular physiology and Bed Bath & Beyond catalogs
  • Snickerdoodles

Also, good luck to my little buddies-by-association, Nate & Theo. Within a week of life, you have achieved the dream of my wannabe-cyborg generation. However, we would like you back. Don’t get too ahead of yourselves, there.

I’ve heard from several of you who have already managed to work the words from last lesson into daily conversation, even if it involved calling a certain professor a crump. Well done! Now, let’s step it up, shall we?

Kakistocracy – the rule of a society by its worst/least-qualified citizens. We had a good time with this word on Monday when combining a kidney dysregulation lecture with politics.

*Borborygm – keeping with the physiology theme, this is a medical term for a rumbling in the bowels. Sounds just like it, don’t you think?

*Gongfermor – a nightsoilman, dunnykin driver, or emptier of cesspits. By law, they were only allowed to operate at night, for *ahem* solid reasons. However, it was an industry at which you could make a decent amount of cash, provided that you didn’t mind the social ramifications.

Lumpkin – a clumsy blunderer, possibly a bit thick, besides.

Glabrous – smooth, free from hair or down. This could refer to the skin (a glabrous pate, perhaps? It amazes me that a word can feel shiny) or to leaves that don’t have any fuzz.

Remember, the stars are for extra credit! Let us all know of your triumphs. While I’ll be out of town for the next few days (celebrating the wedding of two of my friends with bowling, card games, and good times, then studying for two exams 8P ), I’ll get back to you guys next week.

What with Sandy and exams, it’s been pretty busy lately. However, since one can’t always be studying, I’ve been trying to recruit my friends to help me bring back some of the funner words in English. So many of our best insults have fallen by the wayside! It’s a shame, really.

I’m putting together a series of notecards as biweekly/monthly bingo sheets; full marks if you can work every word into conversation at least once, with bonus points for extraordinary examples (marked with *). For you guys, I’ll make the updates more frequent, but a little smaller. Now, on to lesson 1:

Spatherdab – a foolish, gossipy sort of person. Someone who just can’t keep their trap shut.

Diablotin – an imp

Caynard – a sluggard (not to be confused with the French word for duck. Happily, this means that you can call someone a caynard canard and probably get away with your teeth intact :D)

Doughty – brave and persistent, but verging on comedic (somewhere between Don Quixote and an incumbent bureaucrat in late October)

Vespine – waspish

Crump – a crooked person (physically or morally). Specifically, this came to mean someone who could be paid to swear for your character in court. Strangely enough, this nastiness relates to the tasty pastry, the crumpet, which is also all curled up on itself. Weird world, eh?

**Floccinaucinihilipilification – (flocksi nausi nihili pili fication) the act or habit of estimating something as worthless. Yes, this is actually a real word, in use since the 18th Century. Blame Eton College.

Ok. That’s our go-list for the moment. Bear in mind that use of these words may worry your family and cause strangers to back away slowly, but that’s the fun of it! I’d love to hear about your conversations, and will give you some more fun treats next week. Good luck!

“The N Days of Science”

On the 12th day of Science, my P.I. gave to me:

12 flasks rotating,
11 pipettes piping,
10 Westerns blotting,
9 films exposing,
8 plates a’reading,
7 probes a’binding,
6 cultures synching,
5 Giemsa’d rings!
4 trophozoites,
3 schizonts,
2 merozoites,
and a project with ample funding!

And because science is nothing without replicates & controls, we have the non-malarial version:

On the 12th day of Science, my P.I. gave to me:

12 IC50s
11 tight ANOVAs
10 sample buffers
9 R2 values
8 incubations
7 double-blind trials
6 good transfections
5 First Authors!
4 papers in Cell
3 Nobels
2 seminars
and a project with ample funding!

Oh, lords of all writer’s block, what have I done
that my paper lies blank and your ire is won?
This should be complete, or at least halfway through.
Not an outline at midnight – make this untrue!
The deadline approaches, so where is my muse?
Well, drat. This note here says she’s off on some cruise.
You wanna play dirty? Alright, chew on this:
I’ll set this damn paper alight, blow a kiss
farewell to literature, there’s always mime!
Guaranteed: in a week you’ll all be in line
to beg for my mercy, a halt, will I cease?
NO! Not till you bring me five muses apiece.
That’s the deal, place your bid, so what’ll it be?
Hell for you, or one measly essay for me?

I think we all know the answer to that question. One of those offers you can’t refuse, style of thing. Anyway, I wrote it after actually finishing a personal statement for med school applications. I must say, only AMCAS would give you not a page limit or a word limit, but a character limit. And of course they count spaces.

Oh, and this is not intended to make any mimes feel bad. The skilled mime is a wonderful sight. The unskilled, however…

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