Andrey (azangru) wrote,

The other night, I thought of an anatomical term that I learnt in Russian. I even went back to the standard textbook we were taught from to make sure I didn't just forget: my memory is poor, after all, and I was not a particularly inquisitive student:

«У основания большого пальца... видна ямка, получившая название анатомической табакерки». The phrase is puzzling in its parsimony. No explanation is offered about the unusual metaphor. After all, students aren't expected to be especially curious beasts...

I don't quite remember whether we were told, in a lecture perhaps — those were too dull for me, to the point that I skipped more than I care to admit, — why this depression was called this way, but somehow, insidiously, the name must have produced a deep impression on me, perhaps when it popped up during a quiz, and I had no idea what it was referring to. The textbook, you will appreciate, did not make the slightest effort to draw our attention to the term; nothing to make it stand out from the rest of the wall of monotonous text. I didn't have a clue what a табакерка looked like; the word meant about as much to me as кибитка or облучок; so I made several attempts to visualize in my head some sort of meaty (because "anatomical") small box somewhere in the hand, and failed...

Then, the other night, I thought: wasn't this pit called the snuffbox because people would put their snuff in it?

Not an especially original thought, sure. But that, of course, only raised a further question of why anyone would want to put snuff in a pit on the back of their hand rather than directly into their nose. What's so special about the little pit?

Hence Google Books.

The story is actually quite delicious. The primary English-language name for this landmark is "the anatomical snuffbox", but older books would also supply the French term, tabatière anatomique. Here's a good example:

So, the term must have come from France. But that's not the end of the story. Older books still would have another translation of the term: "the anatomist's snuffbox". And The Principles and Practice of Surgery, by Henry Smith (1863, vol 2, p. 640) provides the most vivid story behind the term:

Notice how different this story is from the previous one, which suggested that a person would want to avoid dirtying their — presumably clean — fingertips with snuff. This story rings much closer to the truth. Of course the snuffbox isn't so much "anatomical" (although, sure, it's conveniently provided by the body itself) as "anatomist's", who, in those barbaric, pre-antiseptic, pre-gloves (I would imagine) times would have his fingers soiled but not so much the back of his hand, and might use the back of the hand as a temporary receptacle for the snuff.

It still remains a mystery to me how snuff traveled from wherever it was into the pit on the back of the hand (with the help of an assistant, I imagine?)... But this is the technique the description of which I could not find.

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    A list from a book published in 2001 (wow!), with annotations about what individual items mean: Notice how about a half of those items are also…

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