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30 Essential Medical Terms For Bodily Functions

The inner workings of the human body are complex as they are, but the wide range of formal medical lingo complicates things even further. Did you know, for example, that there are even medical terms for everyday activities like stretching and yawning when you get out of bed, when you laugh out loud, when you break a sweat, and yes when you eat a bit too fast when you’re hungry? The next time you hear a doctor utter something in Latin, pay close attention, as after reading this article, you may understand what it means.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions woman with hands on her stomach
What it means: a rumbling stomach

The rumbling sounds of a hungry tummy are scientifically defined as borborygmi (the plural form of borborygmus). The word is derived from Greek, and it describes the sounds produced by the wave-like contractions of the gastrointestinal tract called peristalsis.



What it means: the sense of smell

The olfactory system allows us to perceive surrounding smells. Humans can smell something when microscopic droplets infused with the smell of, let’s say, lemon, are carried through the air and land on the olfactory receptors in the nose. These specialized cells in the nose transform the smell they perceive into a nerve signal that’s then sent to the brain. It is the specialized olfactory regions of the brain that do the actual interpreting, letting you know that the smell you sense is indeed that of lemon. All this happens in a split second; cool, right?


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions woman drinking water from bottle
What it means: the action of swallowing

Deglutition is the scientific term for swallowing. This is the movement of a substance like food and drink from the mouth to the pharynx, esophagus, and finally the stomach if you’re being scientific about it. Deglutition is one of the most essential functions of the human body, which is why it is one of the first actions learned by newborns. As for the word deglutition, it’s related to words like glutton and glut and shares their etymology from the Latin “gula” and “gluttire,” meaning "throat" and "gulp down, devour," respectively.


What it means: the focus of the eye on an object

Accommodation is another essential skill shared by humans and animals alike. However, unlike swallowing, accommodation is an action that develops on its own, meaning that it’s a reflex. This means that the pupils constrict and widen instinctively as one focuses on objects at varying distances and in different lighting situations.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Kids Kissing Mom
What it means: to kiss

Believe it or not, there’s a medical term for kissing too. The word is osculate, and it’s pronounced [aski-leit]. As with a large number of medical lingo, osculate comes from Latin, namely the word “os,” meaning “mouth.” Fun fact: the word orator stems from the same Latin root.


What it means: sleepwalking

Together with the word somniloquy which refers to talking in one’s sleep, the word somnambulism has the Latin word “somnus” meaning "sleep" at its root. The second part of the first word is “ambulare,” or "walk," and the second – “loqui,” to “speak.” You can also call anyone you know who talks in their sleep a somniloquist, and a person who walks in their sleep a somnambulus.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Woman Sneezing
What it means: a runny nose

When your nose is congested or runny, you probably have rhinorrhoea. The exception to the rule is when a person has a nosebleed because that is called an epistaxis. You surely know what the “rhino-” part of the word rhinorrhoea means (think rhinoceros), but you probably got the meaning of the second part wrong. The Greek word “-rhoia” refers to a "stream" or "flow."


What it means: sneezing

Customarily, medical practitioners refer to a sneezing fit as sternutation. The term is described as “the sudden, forceful, involuntary expulsion of air from the nose and mouth caused by irritation to the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract.” As for the adjective sternutatory, it refers to anything that makes one sneeze.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Laughing man
What it means: loud, unrestrained laughter

People laugh for many reasons, and there are many kinds of laughter too. There’s the shy and affectionate giggle, the sarcastic snicker, and the bold and uproarious laugh called a cachinnation. You may also be surprised to learn that humans are not the only ones who cachinnate; apes, dolphins, and even lab mice were all observed to laugh too!


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Woman crying
What it means: to shed tears

From laughter straight to tears – lachrymation refers to crying or the production of fluid from the lachrymal glands located next to the eyes on either side. Like laughter, lachrymation is widespread in the animal kingdom. However, scientists point out that most animals only have functional tears, or tears that are produced to keep the eyes moist or deal with irritation, not the emotional kind.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions girl eating a big sandwich
What it means: to eat or drink quickly, to gulp

Some people like to savor every bite, whereas others eat so quickly that they can make a plateful vanish in a blink of an eye. The latter process can be described as ingurgitating, and this term actually has a fun etymology. It comes from the Latin word “gurges” which means a "whirlpool." What an apt metaphor!


What it means: itching

The itching sensation on the skin is medically referred to as pruritus, and it is directly derived from the Latin word for itching “prurire.” There’s also the fascinating English adjective prurient derived from the same word that describes the sensation of "having an itching desire for something." Language is fascinating, isn’t it?


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Goosebumps
What it means: goosebumps

When animals get stressed, excited, or protective of their territory, they often raise their fur to appear bigger and more fearsome. Think of a cat’s bushy tail fluffing up when they meet someone they don’t fancy, like the neighbor’s dog. Well, believe it or not, humans have a similar mechanism built into their skin, but since we have much less bodily hair, we call it goosebumps. The biological term for this process is horripilation, which is literally translated from Latin as “bristled hairs.”


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions
What it means: yawning and stretching when you just wake up or you’re tired.

Do you know the lazy feeling you get rolling in bed every Monday morning? The fancy, sciencey way of saying all that yawning and stretching is pandiculation. It occurs during the transition from the sleep to wake cycle and vice versa, and it’s actually an involuntary behavior scientists see in humans and countless animals too.


What it means: the inner ear

The ear has got to be the most cleverly named human organ. The inner ear is called the labyrinth, and it contains structures that are responsible for both hearing and our sense of balance. The labyrinth is located after the middle ear which also has some unusually-named structures, such as the eardrum, and bones referred to as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Man wiping head with towel
What it means: sweating

What happens when you go to the gym? Diaphoresis is one inevitable thing that may happen. This 17th-century term comes from the Latin verb meaning “to carry through.” Admittedly, you’ll rarely encounter this term outside of medical texts nowadays, and even there it’s mostly used as a synonym for hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating caused by an underlying health condition.


What it means: gas buildup in the stomach, bloating

Describing digestive symptoms can be quite uncomfortable, even in the doctor’s office. If you’re not feeling at ease saying you have a bloated abdomen or gas buildup in the GI tract, you can describe it as flatus. We’ve also got everyone covered if they prefer to omit the word flatulence; just use the old English word for it instead, which is ventosity.

Alimentary canal

 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions belly
What it means: GI tract, digestive system

Here’s a funny mnemonic that will help you remember two terms listed in this article. Sherlock Holmes is famous for saying “It’s elementary, Watson!” But when the detective is hungry, his alimentary canal will interrupt him with especially loud borborygmi.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions father and son covering mouth
What it means: burping

Speaking of formal terms for otherwise uncomfortable digestive symptoms, the medical term for burping is eructation, whereas a single burp is simply referred to as a ructus. No joke, this term is also used as a synonym for a volcanic eruption.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Woman covering her mouth while eating
What it means: hiccups

The formal medical name for hiccups has a fascinating etymology. The Latin word singultus originally referred to a time when someone breaks out crying mid-sentence or is unable to speak because they are sobbing. This term emerged in 16th-century English in the form of the word “singult” – “a single sob” unexpectedly interrupting one’s speech. Over the centuries, the term singultus evolved to mean a hiccup. I guess it makes sense, given that hiccups do have the annoying tendency of slipping out mid-sentence.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Woman with a headache
What it means: migraine, headache, or dizziness

Way before medicine understood the difference between different types of headaches, a migraine, and the causes of dizziness, there was a catch-all term that simply pointed to the location of the pain – the head, or cranium. That term is megrim, where the "-grim" is related to the "cran-" root in the word cranium.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Stria
What it means: stretchmarks

Stria (plural form: striae) are those pink, purple, or white lines that appear in people who grow very rapidly, lose a big amount of weight, or give birth. We usually refer to these skin stripes as stretchmarks. 


What it means: the sounds and sensations made by moving joints

Like human tummies, human joints are anything but silent. They pop, they creak, and they grind when you’re moving, and all of these sounds and sensations are perfectly normal, so long as you don’t feel any accompanying stiffness or pain. Collectively, these joint sounds and feelings are called crepitus, named after an ancient Roman musical instrument resembling castanets called “crepitaculum."


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Woman chewing
What it means: chewing

The next time you’re at the dentist, don’t say you chew gum, but rather that you use the gum for mastication. We’re joking, of course, but it may help you remember the meaning of this medical term. Etymologically, it’s related to the words masticated and even mandible, and it’s believed to be of Ancient Greek origin.


What it means: gums

The pink tissue covering parts of your teeth is called gingiva, even though most of us refer to it as simply “the gums.” And yes, the medical condition that causes inflammation in the gums – gingivitis – is named after this word too. Thankfully, everything is logical and reasonably easy to remember in the world of medicine.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Girl sleeping with plush toy
What it means: sleeping

Like many general names, obdormition has narrowed down in terms of its meaning over time. Today, the term isn’t used to refer to sleep in general, but only when a body part, such as a hand or leg “falls asleep” after you put pressure on a major nerve, causing a feeling of numbness.
As you can probably guess, obdormition shares the same root as words like dormant or dormitory, both of which are derived from the Latin “dormire,” or “to sleep.” However, etymologists now believe that this root is probably even older than Ancient Greece and Rome, as even older languages have similar words related to sleep, e.g. the Sanskrit “drati” meaning “sleeps.”


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions Woman Winking
What it means: winking and blinking

When an eye doctor asks you to nictitate, blink twice. That is because the word nictitation is the proper term for blinking and winking. The word is derived from a very old Latin word that means “to bend together,” just like your eyelids or a pair of curtains being closed.


What it means: earwax

Cerumen refers to a waxy substance produced in the ears that keeps dirt and grime out of the ear canal. That’s right, we’re talking about earwax, and this sticky and unpleasant substance is actually very useful for ear health, as it is water-resistant too, so it protects the ear from both pathogens and damage.


What it means: coughing
Here’s another word for coughing. Like most terms of this list, the word tussication was inherited from the Latin word for “cough,” which is “tussis.” The scientific name for whooping cough – pertussis – has the same Latin root.


 MedicalTerms For Bodily Functions scar on hand
What it means: scar

Pronounced as [sika-trix], this last medical term refers to a scab or a scar. And the process of healing and forming a scar to mend a wound is known as cicatrization. Try saying it five times fast, or spelling it on your own. It’s a tricky one, which is probably why it’s generally used less frequently than “scarring” in many medical texts nowadays.

References: Online Etymology Dictionary, Harvard Medical Dictionary of Health, Merriam-Webster.com, Mental Floss
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