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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, August 10, 2012

Of mice and men

With the Olympics monopolizing the airwaves for the last two weeks, a lot of muscle has been on display. But lest you think athletes have a monopoly on muscle, you might want to contemplate these pictures of ballet dancers. (You will probably want to contemplate them no matter what you think!)

Canadian dancer Matthew Golding of
Dutch National Ballet
photo credit: Erwin Olaf
Yes, male ballet dancers, the people that popular culture, in one of the world's inexplicable mysteries, considers to be "wimpy".

OK, class, stop drooling now, and apply your mind to more intellectual pursuits, to wit: the etymology of the word "muscle". (If you want to see Matthew's muscles in the flesh, you could always come with me on a ballet trip to Holland next May .)
"Muscle" ultimately derives from the Latin musculus (little mouse), mus meaning "mouse" and culus being a diminutive ending. The Romans saw a similarity in shape between muscles (especially the biceps) and mice (hey, this is an excuse for you to look at those pics again to check just how much those biceps look like mice). OK, are you back with me now? Another mouse-shaped thing also called a musculus was the bivalve mollusc Mytilus edulis, which you and I know as a ... mussel.
mussels: tasty, but less exciting than muscles

"Mussel" came directly from Latin into Anglo-Saxon, much earlier than "muscle", which arrived in English via French in the 14th century. They both seem to have kept the "K" sound from the Latin origin (as indeed the French word muscle still does) through the 16th century, at which point the "MUSSLE" pronunciation won out. The spelling distinction, with "muscle" reserved for the body part and "mussel" for the shellfish, was not definitively established till the 19th century. It is not surprising that an anatomical term kept a silent letter reflecting the original Latin spelling of the word, while a food term did not, anatomy being the purview of learned folk while eating is for ordinary folk.

If all this leaves you wondering why the French word for "mouse" is souris instead of some derivative of the Latin mus,  this is  a typical case of Old French deriving its vocabulary from Popular Latin (i.e. Latin slang) rather than Classical Latin. In Popular Latin, the word for "mouse" was sorex, which in Classical Latin meant "shrew" (ie the rodent, not the ill-tempered woman).

Now, I  don't want to leave you without giving you a chance to see those beautiful balletic muscles in action, so here you go. MUCH better than the Olympics!
If you love ballet, please check out my season of outstanding ballet trips in 2012-13 by clicking here.

Robert Tewsley and Julia Kraemer in the comic Le Grand Pas de Deux:

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.