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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, October 4, 2013

Two biceps, one...?

A particularly indignant correspondent once wrote to me complaining about people using "bicep" instead of "biceps", and asserted that "bicep" would never be the correct term for the large muscle in the upper arm which flexes the arm and forearm.

Oh what the heck, lets look at a nice biceps before we proceed:

Well now, thus fortified, let us consider the question. Lexicographers know that "never" is a very long time in usage change, and that perhaps someone in the Middle Ages was harumphing that "pea" would never be correct for "pease", or "cherry" for "cherise", "skate" for "skates", "hero" for "heros", and so on.

"Biceps" is indeed technically the correct name for the muscle. One biceps, two biceps.  It comes from Latin bi- (two) + -ceps, a form of caput (head), and the muscle in the arm (as well as a similar one in the leg) is called this because it has two "heads" or parts, attaching it to the shoulder blade.


But, as we saw with "Premises, premises", English doesn't like singular nouns ending in -s. Notice how weird "a nice biceps" sounded in the sentence above (oh, all right, go and have a look at the picture again). Ever since the 1850s, people have been using the word "bicep" instead of "biceps":

The United Service Magazine - Volume 1; Volume 65 - Page 271

"Many years have passed since I stretched myself under a wigwam in the far west ; but while I write this page, acute pains are shooting through the bicep muscles of my arms and shoulders."

As you can see from this chart, the usage has been accelerating in the last 60 years, doubtless concurrently with the rise in people going to the gym to flex those very muscles. If you are writing a medical treatise, I would recommend using "biceps", but it looks as though "bicep" is here to stay. 

For the fascinating story of the word "muscle", please click here.

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  1. The things I didn't know but know now! Thank you.

  2. And then we have binocular and binoculars.


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.