20 Names of Body Parts and Elements and Their Figurative Meanings

By Mark Nichol

In past weeks, I’ve compiled lists of figurative meanings of the names of sense organs, parts of the head, and parts of the hand. Here’s a roster in which I’ve accumulated such references for other parts and elements of the body.

1. Arm: something resembling an arm in form and/or function, a part of a garment covering the arm, might or power or ability, a component or division, or support

2. Blood: refers to kinship or lineage, or to a quality intrinsic to someone because it’s supposedly a hereditary trait, or to bloodshed; as a verb, refers to providing a hound with a scented object to prompt a hunt, or to introducing to bloodshed or killing

3. Bone: the core, essence, or heart of something, or the design or framework of a composition, or a subject (usually in the idiom “bone of contention”) or an inclination or talent or, more often, the lack thereof (“I don’t have an artistic bone in my body”), or something intended to placate (“Throw him a bone”)

4. Breast: the location of emotion, something resembling a breast, or part of a garment that covers the literal breast (the sometimes-synonym chest first referred to a box and then was applied, by association, to the section of the body)

5. Foot: something resembling a foot in form and/or function, a lower or opposite end or edge or the bottom of something, a standard length, a unit of meter in verse, or a step or speed

6. Heart: courage or fortitude or persistence, affection or compassion or feelings, the center or essential or vital part of something, or a stylized representation of the organ, or one or more playing cards featuring such a symbol or a card game focusing on this suit

7. Hip: an angle of an intersection of parts of a roof

8. Intestine: the phrase “intestinal fortitude,” describing courage, derives from the association of the intestines with bravery (compare the informal synonym guts)

9. Leg: a limblike component, the part of an article of clothing or footwear that covers the leg, part of a journey or race, or one competition among several similar events, or long-term appeal or interest

10. Liver: a grayish and reddish brown, and seen in the expression “lily livered,” meaning “cowardly”

11. Lungs: a respiratory aid or device, or a variation of the literal meaning referring to someone’s capacity for producing loud sounds

12. Muscle: physical force, especially for intimidation or persuasion; as a verb, to infiltrate (often in the phrase “muscle in”)

13. Neck: a geographical or structural feature resembling a neck, or a narrow margin (as in the finish of a race), or, informally, a part or region; as a verb, to narrow, or to caress and kiss passionately

14. Shoulder: the side of an artificial or natural structure, as the shoulder of a road or of a mountain; as a verb, to push aside, or to bear, as with responsibility

15. Stomach: courage or fortitude, or desire or inclination, or appetite; in verb form, to put up with or withstand

16. Torso: an artistic representation of the human trunk, or something incomplete or damaged

17. Vein: a channel of water or a bed of mineral in rock or ice, or a quality or style, or an aptitude or mood

18: Viscera: in the adjectival form, visceral, corresponds to the adjective gut (for example, “gut feeling”), meaning “instinctive” (as in “She had a visceral sense that she was in danger”); alternatively, it means “earthy” (“The movie has a visceral tone, with its coarse characters and rough action”)

19. Waist: something resembling a waist in form and/or function (as part of an aircraft or marine vessel), an article (or part of an article) of clothing worn on or around the waist, or a line around the waist or a measurement of the line

20. Womb: a space resembling a womb in form and/or function, or the literal or figurative birthplace of an idea, product, or other physical or intellectual creation

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11 Responses to “20 Names of Body Parts and Elements and Their Figurative Meanings”

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is an entire book that has been written on people’s names for various parts of their human bodies. Some of these are like the “figurative meanings” mentioned above, but in reverse.

    The author sent out questionnaires to thousands and thousands of people – with envelopes and reverse postage included – asking people to give him their “pet names” for their different body parts – everything from head to toe. He got several thousand responses: plenty to base his book on. He read them all, picked out the best ones, and arranged then according to body part into chapters. He edited them for grammar, spelling, and everything, and he added introductory and concluding sections to the whole book, and for each chapter.

    When he was finished, he had a book-length manuscript, and he had the task of finding a publisher that was willing to accept it and print it. I found his book to be interesting and amusing, too.

    I think that the description of a special part of her body as her “much-traveled highway” was the most amusing one.

    It occurred to me that she or another woman could have called hers “El Camino Real” (well-know to Californians) = “the royal road” or “the king’s highway”.

    In the real world, U.S. HIghway 101 in California and part of Interstate Highway 5 follow the route of “El Camino Real”. Parts of it might follow pieces of the Pacific Coast Highway (Calif. Hwy 1) or “old Highway 101”, such as in San Diego County. There are highway markers about a mile apart on that route that say “El Camino Real”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    You missed a good figurative meaning for “neck”.
    “A stiff neck” or “stiff-necked”, such in in this example: “The Kommandant really is a stiff-necked bloke, isn’t he?”

    This means that the Kommandant does not accept any nonsense, that he is a strict officer, that he follows the procedures in the book, that he doesn’t listen to any lies, you cannot push him around, and he doesn’t take any baloney.

    This Kommandant is the very opposite of Kommandant Klink, and that he is a lot more like the Kommandant in “The Great Escape” or in “Stalag 17”. This Kommandant will throw prisoners into the “cooler” on small provocatations. I have read in some reference books on World War II that even the Germans used the English word “cooler” to refer to the detention center – a set of cells with barred windows, etc.
    “Cooler” comes from the English phrase “to be on ice”, which means locke up in jail or prison.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: “locke up” meant “locked up”

  • thebluebird11

    I am going to add “artery,” since you already had vein in there. A large highway that connects different and much-traveled areas is often called a main artery, and just like human arteries, they do get “clogged,” during rush hour!

    Somewhat off topic, probably, you could also throw in “toe,” (as long as you mentioned foot), in expressions such as “toe the line” or “go toe-to-toe,” and there is toe-dancing (in ballet), and the expression “to step on [someone’s] toes.” One can also have two left feet, get a foot in the door…OK I think I am really getting too off-topic…sorry!

  • Marc Weiner

    I don’t mean to lower the level of discourse, but perhaps you ought to have included testicles, as in the colloquial/slang “balls,” which indicates chutzpah or courage. I’ve even heard the expression “testicular fortitude,” albeit only in more polite company.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @thebluebird11

    Oh, “artery” and “toe” are both excellent ones to add.

    Yes, you can “get a toe in the door”, and you can also get a “toehold”, neither of which always has the literal meaning.
    For example, an army can “get a toehold on the other side of the river” or “get a toehold on the other side of the English Channel”, which is exactly what the Americans, British, and Canadians did on D-Day.
    (The U.S. Army was very nearly repulsed from Omaha Beach by the Germans on D-Day. The 1st Division of the U.S. Marine Corps got a toehold on Guadalcanal on the first day of landings on that island on August 8, 1942.)

    You can get your toe in the door when in the process of trying to get a new job with a new company somewhere.

    I imagine that “to hold on by one’s fingernails” has already been convered in the article on the hand – but armies and Marine Divisions do that, too. Also, the Royal Air Force held on by its fingernails in defending England and Scotland from the Luftwaffe during 1940.

    The U.S. Army held on by its fingernails in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and Janary 1945, especially in the town of Bastogne, which was a vital crossroads where seven highways came together. I think that the Battle of the Bulge and the relief of Bastogne was the finest hour of the U.S. Army – of all time. To find out more, just see the movie PATTON.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The author of the article also left out the many figurative uses of the word “buttocks” or “butt”.

    For example, “I am going to kick you in the butt,” rarely means physical kicks and actual butts. You might be able to give someone a kick in the butt by writing a letter to the President, or to the president of a company.

    The say thing goes for, “I am going to wrench your neck!”
    People rarely get sent to the hospital that way, but they can get into a heap of trouble if they do not straighten out and change their ways.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The author of this article also left out the whole concept of the “backbone” or the “spine”. These come into the field of play when it comes to human conflict. That is something that people rarely avoid in the course of their lives. Even George Washington had men who came into conflict with him, either when he was a general or when he was the President of the United States. Actually, Thomas Jefferson resigned as the first Secretary of State when Washington was on the verge of firing him. This happened in about 1795.

    “You don’t have enough backbone” or “need to get some backbone” rately means actualy backbones, but rather it refers to mental and emotional fortitude.

    “You will straighten up in your performance or else I will snap your spine,” rarely sents people to the hospital or to the morgue, but rather is can send them out onto the streets in search of new jobs. Else, it can lead to demotions or other quite unpleasant things at work, such as cuts in pay or the absensce or raises.

    Personally, I would rather have my butt kicked than to have my spine snapped. The former seems to be a lot less painful that the latter.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    How about, “Today, the President vented his spleen at the Secretary of State” (or the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Interior, etc.) ?

    I would never want to get into a position of having that happened to me, or having it come from the president of my company or from my department head.

    Then there is that hypothetical internal organ, the “gizzard”, which one’s superiors can do horrible things to, including “pulling it out”.
    “No, Mother, I intend to keep my gizzard, so I will do whatever you want!”
    I don’t want my Mother or Father to “jerk my neck”, either.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    If someone whom I respect says, “I will have your butt for that,” my reply will be “No, Sir,” or “No, Ma’am,” “I intend to keep my butt where it is, so what do we need to do to straighten this problem out.”

    As for “jerking someone’s neck” about something, is that Southern Dialect, or is that said everywhere in English?
    Do they say, “jerk your neck” in Canada and/or in Britain?

    That sounds like a phrase that would have originated in England, as much as the Crown just to have a lot of fondness for hangings!
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    It seems to be certain that he author of this article left out ever one of the relevant things that have unpleasant consequences a that can used at threats to get people’s attention, including:

    “having one’s neck jerked”
    “having one’s butt kicked or removed”
    “having one’s gizzard pulled out or cut out”
    “having spleen vented at one”
    “not having enough backbone”
    “having one’s spine snapped” or “one’s neck snapped”
    “running afoul of the stiff-necked principal, Kommandant, or policeman”
    Or the ultimate one, “having one’s head pinched off”
    “No, Mother, I have every intention of keeping my head, so what its is that you want me to do?”
    “I want you to sit down and shut up while we have dinner in this restaurant.” Have you ever seen children act like wild monkeys in a restaurant? That never happened in my family because we would we would have faced the consequences from Mother.
    D.A.W.

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