It's that season again! You know, when we dust off that syllabus and take a look at it to see if it's needs any tweaking. That, or just change the date and call it done. We may even have a few syllabuses to tend. Wait! What? ! Syllabuses? Shouldn't that ...
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Syllabi or Syllabuses?

It's that season again! You know, when we dust off that syllabus and take a look at it to see if it's needs any tweaking. That, or just change the date and call it done. We may even have a few syllabuses to tend. Wait! What?! Syllabuses? Shouldn't that be syllabi?


Well, it's true that I often get things wrong. But not this time.

Actually, I didn't know until recently that in English, the correct plural form of syllabus is syllabuses

And syllabi. Either one is correct. 

I don't know if I've ever heard anyone actually say syllabuses, except me. And I've only recently started using it because I've been thinking about it. Soon, I'll be calling them Course Guides because that just now popped into my head—so I'll be thinking of that instead. And, as much as I like the classics (Latin and Greek), I think Course Guide works better and is more student friendly because it's plainly spoken. But I digress.

Maybe before reading this, you hadn't heard syllabuses used much, either.

It turns out that the English word syllabus was coined way back in 1650 from a modern Latin word that was itself formed sort of by mistake, by several misreadings and misinterpretations of some similar sounding Greek words. One of those Greek words is a form—síttybās—that refers to papyrus rolls.

scroll in a glass library case

I'm thinking my course syllabuses are getting so long, especially with recent mandatory disclaimers and public health instructions sent down to me from the ivory-tower folks, they maybe would be best printed out on papyrus scrolls.

Once the word syllabus appeared in Latin, it then took on a Latin plural form syllabi. But remember we're speaking English, not Latin. It's true that in academia in general, and the life sciences in particular, we like to use the Latin plural forms. But when it comes right down to it, we're still speaking English, right? So it's syllabi if you want to preserve the Latin flavor—and who doesn't? But it's also perfectly fine to use syllabuses as the plural form. Both are okay. Really.

I'll probably go back to using syllabi—if I end up abandoning my idea of using Course Guide. But I'm going to keep syllabuses in my pocket to use if I ever need to create a distraction (or keep myself awake) at an academic committee meeting.

Want some tips for taming your syllabuses, er, course guides? Check out The Syllabus Special episode of The A&P Professor podcast.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash


Is it Mamillary or Mammillary?

There are two acceptable spellings of this term that can be used to name a pair of hypothalamic nuclei in the brain (see the illustration below) and other structures that resemble a small human female breast:
mam(m)- breast, -ill(a)- little,-ary relating to

Originally, it was mamillary from the Latin spelling of the term mamillaris. The variant mammillary arose because of the close association with the related English term mammary (relating to the breast).

Both spellings are widely used. In my textbook Anatomy & Physiology, I chose the former spelling (the "single m"). Mamillary is used in ICD-9 medical coding and in many medical textbooks) because it more closely follows the Latin word from which it is derived, mamillaris. As many of my readers have noticed, the parsing of Latin roots is a theme in our textbook that is not found in most other anatomy and physiology textbooks, so it makes sense that we'd go in this direction, given a choice of two acceptable spellings.

This brings up the interesting and important phenomenon that applies to both spelling and pronunciation: there are sometimes several acceptable alternates but we often assume that the way we learned it (or the way it appears in the teaching resources we use) is the only correct option.

Check out Mamillary or Mammillary? What's in an “m”?

It turns out that our learning of scientific and medical terminology is never complete and so we should always double-check misspellings (and mispronunciations) in case they turn out to be correct (even if odd) alternates with which we are not yet familiar.

You may also be interested in a previous post on variations in pronunciation of anatomical terms:

Graphic from Anatomography


Meatus | Weird Word

The term meatus is a weird one. The plural form is not what you might think if you've never heard it before.
meatus passage or channel
In anatomy, the term meatus refers to a passageway or opening into (or through) a tube.

Meatus is a noun derived from the Latin verb meare, which means "to pass."

For example, the term external acoustic meatus refers to the tubelike opening in the temporal bone that allows passage of the tubelike canal of the external ear bearing the same name.

There are many examples of meatus throughout the body.

What?! Was that a typo? Did I just mean to state, "examples of meatus throughout the body."? Yes. Yes, I did.

Considering the many nouns in science and medicine that end in -us and are pluralized by changing the -us to -i, one would think that the proper plural form of meatus is meati. Nope.

The term meatus is a weird one, remember? It's proper plural form is either meatus or meatuses.

Why the weirdness?

The plural form meatus comes from the fact that it in Latin, it belongs to the fourth declension class of nouns—and as such, meatus is the proper plural form in Latin.

The plural form meatuses adopts the English form of pluralization, which happens frequently when Latin terms are imported into English.

The combining form of meatus is meato-, as in meatoscope (for looking into the urinary meatus).


Modern Use of Eponyms

I love eponyms!

I'm a bit sad that eponyms—terms that include a proper name—are going out of style in the world of human sciences, it seems.

Paul Langerhans
The international lists of anatomic terminology recommend against most eponyms, providing descriptive terms in their place.  For example, pancreatic islet is the term  preferred to the eponym islet of Langerhans.  Osteon is preferred over haversian system.

Of course, I get that.  Descriptive terms are more intuitive and therefore easier to understand, learn, and remember. Related to that is that they are more accurate when it comes to medical applications.  And I'm all about accuracy in the medical professions.

It's just kind of fun using eponyms.  And kind of sad to feel like I am leaving behind all those wonderful women and men who discovered our parts way back when.

But it's not just the international lists of anatomy that are leaving eponyms behind—all the "authorities," including most medical textbooks are doing it. Professional societies, associations, and boards in the basic sciences and the health professions are doing it.  So if we want to be "in style" with our terminology—and more importantly, make sure our students are sporting the latest linguistic style—we'd better pay attention to the trends, eh?

Let me give you some unasked-for fashion tips if you want to be stylish in your use of professional terminology:

Avoid eponyms

If there's an accepted descriptive term, it's best to use that rather than the eponym.

Be bilingual

Some folks you'll encounter are old-fashioned or possibly don't know the newer descriptive term.  Or they know both and use them interchangeably.  Because we're on the cusp of a fashion revolution here, the most competent professionals will know both and be able to switch back and forth easily as the context requires. The goal is to understand and be understood, right?

What to do if you have to use an eponym

Then use an eponym! There are some commonly used terms for which there really isn't a great descriptive term to replace an eponym.  For example, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, and other disorders often don't have a widely accepted alternative. So absolute avoidance of eponyms is not (yet) possible.

Fashionable uses of eponyms

If you must use an eponym, the trendy folks at AMA and elsewhere avoid the use of possessive forms.  For example, notice how I used the term Parkinson disease above and not Parkinson's disease?  It's better to use Down syndrome than Down's syndrome—and even better to use trisomy 21 syndrome.

Likewise, the possessive loop of Henle is out of favor but using Henle loop may still get you into most of the trendy clubs.

Illusory eponym styles

When you try to get away with using a possessive form of an eponym and yet still avoid arrest by the fashion police, you have to be very cunning.  Here's a common way that's done: use the adjective form of a proper name.  So if you want to honor Gabriele Falloppio's work in describing uterine tubes, then use his Latinized name (Fallopius) in the form of an adjective and call them Fallopian tubes.

Gabriele Falloppio
But, you may say, that's not a very clever masking of the fact that it's an eponym. In fact, it's pretty obvious, right?  Well here's the sly part: cover it up by using a lowercase letter—thus obscuring the fact that it incorporates a proper noun. That's why many sources use fallopian tube instead of Fallopian tube.

Terms like eustachian tube and haversian canal may not seem like well-hidden eponyms in our context here, where we're actually focusing on eponyms. But most grand stage illusions—like Blackstone's making an elephant appear on stage from thin air—rely on such subtle misdirection.

So when you are using an adjective form of an eponym, it's best not to capitalize it and risk possible arrest by the fashion police.

Fashion rules are not really rules

With any fashion, the "rules" are not usually rules in the formal sense.  They are simple formulations of trends that, if heeded, will likely save you some embarrassment when you don't appear to be cool.  So if you have a good reason—or even a lame reason—to ignore these rules, I think you'll probably survive. People laugh (even hoot) at my disregard for current clothing fashion all the time—you get used to it.

OK, sometimes fashion rules really are rules

As with any professional communication, sometimes fashion rules get set in stone in a required style to which you must adhere in your work.  Sort of like a dress code for words. For example, students learn how to use professional styles when we require that they submit their assignments in APA, Chicago, or CBE style. Likewise, in publishing journal articles, books, and other works, there are rules established that provide consistency—and, therefore, also accuracy.  Each publisher, sometimes each journal or textbook, has it's own house style that defines such things. So if your journal editor insists on Eustachian tube instead of auditory tube or eustachian tube, then I recommend doing it.  Retro, in some contexts, can be cool.

Adapted from The A&P Professor


Say It Out Loud 18 Times

Want to learn your terminology quickly and easily?  In a recent post, I told you that one way to do that is to work on six new words every day.  My friend Jane, the foreign language professor, gave me another tip to help learn new terminology: say each new term out loud at least 18 times.

Apparently, there's evidence suggesting that to "own" a new word, you have to say it out loud at least 18 times.  The vocalization, along with the repetition, apparently help to reinforce memories in the various language areas in your brain.  Which means that you can recall and use the terms easily.

I know that seems silly . . . even childish.  But think about it.  Silly as it may seem, isn't it worth reducing your study time and improving your knowledge quickly?

Adapted from a post at The A&P Student

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