What's a 'Cep?

Ever wonder where muscles get their names from? Here, we give you a quick lesson about their origins.

What's a 'Cep?

You pump them up, you rub them down; you curl them in and you max them out. You push them, you pound them and you pummel them. You flex them and you feed them. You knead them and you need them. They grow with you when you’re young and they shrink with you when you’re old. They tear, they pull and they cramp. They get knots. They fall asleep. They sometimes even acquire horses named Charley. But they were made just for you. So it stands to reason that you should get to name them, right?

Ron Burgundy referred to his as guns. My Uncle Gary preferred pipes. But most of us stick with the term we learned in high school biology: biceps. But what is a 'cep, anyway? We have biceps, triceps and quadriceps - but no uniceps or octoceps? Is it possible that the human body has more than 600 muscles and only three of them have 'ceps? Seems unlikely.

A Google search reveals that the word biceps comes from the Latin words bis, meaning double, and caput, meaning head. The combination form of caput is ceps - hence, biceps. But don’t other muscles have heads? Our abs look like six muscle heads, so wouldn’t sextceps make more sense than abdominals? Obviously, somebody didn’t think so - but who?

Well, since Congress never created the Muscle Unification Sub-Committee for Labeling Extremities (MUSCLE for short), the answer falls to one man: Henry Gray. It seems that in addition to helping launch the career of Katherine Heigl, his anatomy is partly responsible for the muddling of our muscle names. I say partly because Gray didn’t name the muscles - he just put all of the designations used in the medical community 150 years ago into one hardcover edition and put his John Hancock on it. But where he got the names is another story entirely.

Some of the muscle names he included (such as biceps) were derived from Latin roots, some came about because the muscle in question looked similar to a letter in the Greek alphabet (such as deltoids, which are triangularly shaped like the letter delta), and others (such as calves) have a long, twisted tale that traverses several cultures and centuries. The origin of the name calves comes from the Viking word kálfi, which is related to the Gaelic word calpa. If you take that root back to its original definition, it means a swelling of the body, which, to ancient people, is what the calf looked like.

But the most curious part of the saga is that the word calf isn’t even the correct anatomical term for the primary muscle in the lower leg. It’s actually called a gastrocnemius, which comes from the Greek and Latin words gastro, for the calves’ bellylike shape, and kneme, meaning leg. And so there was a war of the words between the Vikings, who thought the calf looked like a swelling of the body, and the Greeks, who thought it looked like a beer gut. Seems the ancient Vikings lost just as many battles as the ones who currently reside in the NFC Central.

This etymological enigma leaves us with one simple conclusion: Call your muscles whatever you want. After all, who’s to say that in a few hundred years a doctor won’t be performing distal python repair surgery because the medical community decided to adopt Hulk Hogan’s pet name for his 24-inch arms?