Etymology of Anatomy
Anatomy (and its etymology) is one of the richest and most interesting words that humans have ever created. From Latin to French to Greek, this word breaks barriers and crosses borders. What’s particularly interesting about this word is its widespread use.
Most dictionaries describe anatomy as the branch of science that deals with the physical apparatus of living organisms. It should be noted that most of our medical terms come from Latin and Greek. This isn’t surprising since the Greeks were one of the first civilizations that studied medicine to any great extent. Thus, nearly all of our medical words come from Greek.
Anatomy’s etymology goes all the way back to the later fourteenth century. We know that the Greeks used the word anatomia, and that word has remained with many European languages. Portugal, Italy, Catalonia, Galicia, Poland, Finland and the Basque country all use the same exact word: anatomia.
Anatomia was also written in Late Latin manuscripts, and the Old French used anatomie. Here’s how it all came about:
The word is a combination of the Greek ana (which means against, up to, toward, etc; I think up is the best description of ana) and tome (to cut), literally ana + tome: anatome (dissection). Starting with the Greek temnein (cut), it then went to tomia (cutting) and ana (up). These then evolved in Late Latin to anatomia, and when anatomia met the Old French anatomie, it finally became the Middle English anatomy, and that’s the word we use now.
What’s particularly fascinating about the word anatomy is how little it changes no matter where you go in the world. Anatomy in English, Somalo, Swahili and Maori is anatomy. In Afrikaans, Dutch, French, German, Romanian and Czech is anatomie; in Albanian, Indonesian, Javanese, Malay, Norwegian, Sundanese, Swedish, Turkish, Yoruba and Danish: anatomi; in Latin, Portuguese, Italian, Basque, Catalan, Galician, Polish and Finnish: anatomia; in Bosnian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Slovenian, Azerbaijani, Uzbek and Croatian: anatomija; in Esperanto: anatomio; in Estonian: anatoomia; in Filipino: anatomya; in Greek: ανατομία (this reads as anatomia); Hungarian: anatómia; Galician and Spanish: anatomía; in Irish: anatamaíocht; in Japanese: 解剖学 (this sounds something like kaibō-gaku); in Korean: 해부 (reads as haebu); in Chinese: 解剖学 (sounds like jiěpōu xué); in Macedonian: анатомија (sounds like anatomija); in Mongolian: анатоми (reads like anatomi); in Kazakh, Russian and Tajik: анатомия (reads like anatomiya); in Serbian: анатомија (reads like anatomiya); in Slovak: anatómia; in Telugu the actual word sounds something like Anāṭamī; in Ukranian: анатомія (reads like anatomiya); in Welsh: anatomeg; In Kannada, the word sounds something like aṅgaracanāśāstra.
It’s quite amazing to see that nearly every language uses some form of the original anatomia. We owe the Greeks a debt of gratitude. Perhaps when we invent a time machine we can give them a handshake.
Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.
Brachet, A., An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language, transl. G.W. Kitchin, Oxford, 1882.
de Vaan, Michiel, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, vol. 7, of Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, Alexander Lubotsky ed., Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Klein, Dr. Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Co., 1971.
Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Weekley, Ernest, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, John Murray, 1921; reprint 1967, Dover Publications.