Liberal Arts Blog. Magic Words Journal (II): Socrates and Anatomy

Liberal Arts Blog: Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Culture, and Religion Day

Today’s Topic: Magic Words Journal (II): Socrates and Anatomy

Know yourself, said Socrates. But in how much anatomical detail? What body parts and functions should a 5th grader be able to name? How about an 8th grader? 12th? College graduate? Today, a few examples of recent additions to my vocabulary that I feel should have been acquired much earlier.

Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

MALLEUS (“the hammer’) , INCUS (“the anvil”), STAPES (“the stirrup”)

1. The malleus, incus, and stapes are the three bones of the middle ear that amplify the vibrations of the ear drum by a factor of 20, allowing you to hear.

2. Collectively, they are called “ossicles” or little bones.

3. The word “Malleus” is perhaps best known for its appearance in the title of the treatise on witchcraft from 1486, “Malleus Maleficarum,” (Hammer of the Witches) which sold like hot cakes in the late 15th and 16th centuries and advocated the use of torture in the extermination of witches.

UTRICLE, SACCULE, OTOLITHS — How you keep your balance

1. The utricle and saccule are little sacks in the part of the ear that takes care of balance (the “vestibular system”) rather than hearing (the “cochlea”).

2. The key to their ability to do so are little stones called otoliths floating about in a viscous fluid (“endolymph”), too much of which causes Meniere’s disease.

3. Other components of the balance system are three semi-circular canals oriented along three separate axes (horizontal, vertical, and sagittal) or (pitch, yaw, and roll). I think each canal should have its own special cool-sounding name, but I couldn’t find one.


1. Meatus is an opening (as in the canal you stuff that Q-tip into even though you are told not to). You also have three large nasal ones. I’ll stop there.

2. A macula is a spot. It could be on the skin. But the macula of the retina (“macula lutea” or “yellow spot”) is the most sensitive part of the retina. It has also been called the “sunblock” or “sunglasses” of the eye as it “absorbs excess blue and ultraviolet light.”

3. A foramen is another kind of anatomical opening. But in this case within a bone allowing nerves, arteries, and veins to go from one part of the body to another. The “foramen magnum” is the big one at the base of the skull.

Final comment: Vocabulary facilitates clarity and depth of thought and is under-appreciated as a tool of critical thinking. In every field of human endeavor (from medicine to law and engineering) there are terms now considered “specialized” that should be part of the quiver of every high school graduate.



Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.

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John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.