Where Words Take Us – Wrist

Carpus is a word from modern Latin and Greek, meaning wrist, which is ‘the joint connecting the hand with the forearm’ according to my favourite Oxford Online

One of the very first wristwatches. Mid 1800s. Decorated gold bracelet watch with elaborate design and small watch face.
Bracelet Watch – 1868
Courtesy of the Patek Philippe Museum
Image by: Patek Philippe Museum

The word wrist itself has a rich history from Old Norse, Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and German, conveying the idea of ‘the turning joint’. One of the oldest usages mentioned in the Online Etymology Dictionary dated from the 1570s when wrist-band was part of a sleeve. According to this dictionary, the word wrist-watch joined the lexicon in 1889. But my search for images of those first watches brought me this piece from the royal riches of old Europe, dated 1868.

The richness of the word carpus, however, lies in its filtering down into the intricate body of the medical sciences. This turning joint consists of eight tiny bones, arranged in two rows, not unlike the ‘dolosse’ some people will still remember as toys from long before screen time was a glimmer in any parent’s eye. 

Dolosse, made from the knuckle bones of sheep or goats, "yoked" in front of a jaw bone to immitate oxen, pulling a wagon.
Dolosse, pulling an ox wagon.
Image by: Colline Kook-Chun

In one row, you have the scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum and pisiform, and in the other, the trapezium, trapezoid, capitate and hamate. These names are all from Greek and Latin, but it seems the only link between the bones and their names is that they’re supposed to look like the things they are named after. The trouble is, to figure out what they look like, probably requires more imagination than my dad and his pals needed to figure out the names of their dolosse and how to remember them. 

No wonder there is such a great struggle to learn which is which and all manner of methods are employed to this end, ranging from mnemonics like some lovers try positions that they cannot handle, to podcasts and YouTube lectures. 

Brian here is probably one of the more successful ones, albeit for his smile and his Irish ‘but’ shimmering through the American accent rather than his explanations because he has to work really hard at convincing me the trapezium looks like a table.

So why on earth would I use ‘wrist’ as my random word today? Well, for anybody who earns the crust with a computer in the freelance world, our wrists are the dolosse – the work oxen yoked by ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves, and energised by blood, sweat and tears, dragging us up the mountains to where the happy client awaits. 

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