What comes to mind when you think about muscles? Maybe it’s bodybuilders or protein shakes. But if you study the etymology of the word, you’ll get a clue as to what ancient Romans thought flexing looked like.
Let’s take a closer look at the fascinating etymology to learn how rodents, biceps and a certain type of sea creature are all connected.
Of Mice and Muscles
The word “muscle” was first used by Middle French speakers in the 14th century. But the word evolved from the existing Latin words “mus” meaning “mouse” and “musculus,” which translates to both “little mouse” and “muscle.”
Yes – ancient Romans believed that certain muscles, especially bicep muscles, looked like little mice running under a person’s skin. If you want to flex right now to see what they were talking about, we don’t blame you.
After “muscle” was adopted by the French, it later showed up in Late Middle English and is still used in modern English today.
Although “muscle” developed from a Latin root, the Romans weren’t the only ones who associated muscles with mice. Take the prefix “myo-”. This term is used to refer to muscles in medical terminology today, like in the word for muscle cell (myocyte). “Myo” stems from the Greek word “mŷs” which translates to both muscle and mouse.
What About Mussels?
Now that you know about the origins of the word “muscle,” let’s investigate one of its homophones – “mussels.” Maybe you’ve enjoyed these at a seafood restaurant before, but if you aren’t familiar, Merriam-Webster defines mussels as “a marine bivalve mollusk (especially genus Mytilus) usually having a dark elongated shell.”
Does the root look familiar? The word “mussel” also developed from the Latin term “musculus”, or little mice. Apparently, these sea creatures looked like tiny rodents to some ancient speakers, so the name “mussel” was born.
This word was first used to identify marine life in the 12th century and the modern spelling of “mussels” shows up in the 1600s. But, it wasn’t until the 1870s that the spellings of “mussel” and “muscle” were more uniformly adopted to help differentiate between the two different meanings.
Other Animal Connections
Interestingly, muscles aren’t the only body part with an etymology related to animals. A scientist studying the brain decided to name a certain region the “hippocampus.” This small, slightly curved section reminded the scientist of a seahorse. So, he used the Greek word “hippokampus” which is a creature from mythology with the body of a horse and the tail of a fish.
The cochlea is another anatomical feature named for an animal. If you’ve ever looked at a picture of the inner ear, you’ll know that this structure, which plays an important role in hearing, resembles a small snail shell. So, it’s no surprise that the word “cochlea” is derived from the Greek word “kochlos” (snail).
The next time you go to lift weights, think about the origin of the word “muscles” Now that you know more about this fascinating etymology, the term “gym rat” takes on a whole new meaning.
For other interesting etymology stories, browse the ALTA Beyond Words Blog.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator. You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.