Fun Etymology Tuesday – Mice, muscles and mussels

Ave, popule Libri Vultuum.

How were your Winter Holidays? We hope you had fun with your family and friends and that you ate to your heart’s content, because we sure did.

We at the HLC don’t like slacking off, though, so Boxing Day will certainly not stop us from bringing the usual dose of Fun Etymology goodness to you.

What do mice, muscles and mussels have in common?
Believe it or not, their names all come from the same root word, the Proto-Indo-European *mus-, meaning “mouse”.

The word “mouse”, as you can imagine, comes to English in an unbroken line from PIE through Germanic, and has changed very little in the millennia (the only significant change happened around the 14th to 17th centuries, during the Great Vowel Shift, when all the vowels of English were jumbled around. We’ll talk about this in a future blog post).

How do muscles connect in any way to mice, though?
The answer can be found in ancient Rome.
The Latin word for “mouse” was also “mus”, and the Romans were known to be keen observers of Nature in all its aspect.
If you’ve ever ogled a ripped bodybuilder showcasing their muscular prowess, you will have noticed that muscles stretching and relaxing under the skin seem to wriggle, as if those beefy arms were really bags full of live mice.
The Romans noticed this too, and that’s why they called whatever was wriggling under their skin “musculi”, or “little mice”, from which the modern English word “muscle” ultimately derives.

What about mussels then?
Well, if you’ve ever seen a live mussel, you’ll have noticed that the function of what we call its meat is opening and closing its shell. It is, in fact, a kind of muscle.
That’s where the name of this tasty bivalve comes from, but, being a rather more humble word than “muscle”, which had to appear in many academical anatomy books, no effort was made to keep its spelling similar to Latin, and that’s how we ended up with the modern spelling “mussel”.

And that’s how you go from mice to mussels.

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