Sinewy and Sinuous

By Maeve Maddox

In the context of anatomy, a sinew is “a strong fibrous cord serving to connect a muscle with a bone or other part.”

Figuratively, usually in the plural, sinew connotes strength, as in this much-repeated quotation from Cicero: “The sinews of war are infinite money.”

The adjective for sinew is sinewy.

When I hear or read the word sinewy applied to a person, I think of muscles, strength, and healthy leanness.

In the context of cooking, sinewy is applied to cuts of meat. Sinewy meat is usually tough.

Used figuratively, sinewy connotes strength and masculinity.

Here are examples of both literal and figurative uses of the adjective sinewy:

The sinewy horsemen, as daring as the Crusaders who invaded the Holy Land, seemed to be everywhere.

At Bondoni was Percival, a tall, sinewy man, a fine rider and shot. 

He had taken his coat off and had rolled up his shirtsleeves, revealing sinewy white arms covered in freckles.

The shank comes from the upper leg portion of the cow. Since this is a very well exercised part of the body, the meat is lower in fat and tends to be sinewy and dry.

Unlike beech, it has broad ridges that curve up and around the trunk and branches, resembling a sinewy, muscular arm. 

Jacques Barzun praised Stout for his “sinewy, pellucid, propelling prose,” which seems to me to get it exactly right.

Because of these associations with sinewy, I was startled to find the label “Sinewy Delta” under the photo of a river delta in the Yukon. The photo showed a complex convergence of winding rivers that from the air resembled veins visible on the back of an old person’s hand or the diagram of a network of capillaries.

As I explored the Web, I discovered that some people use sinewy instead of the more conventional adjective sinuous to describe things—usually rivers—that are characterized by curves, twists, and turns.

Sinuous derives from the Latin noun sinus: “a bending, a curve, a fold.”

I do not rule out the possibility that strong currents or rough waves might suggest musculature, but the following examples clearly use sinewy where sinuous would be more apt:

The outboard motor gurgled and rumbled as they worked their way out of the sinewy river mouth, curving left, passing jutting boulders as they moved toward the open water of Big Bay de Noc.

Next time you enjoy a float down the sinewy channels of the Winooski or Lamoille river, note where each bend and twist occurs.

In this area, the sinewy Delaware River takes some of its most interesting bends as it proceeds on its journey south to the Atlantic Ocean.

Interesting things happen at the juncture of different mediums: between field and water, the shape of a river, its sinewy curve, is defined.

The Little Manatee River still follows the same winding, sinewy course it has for centuries.

The mouth of the Sibun is dominated by mangroves and a winding, sinewy track.

I suppose that speakers who associate the word sinew with the image of cord-like tendons in a pattern resembling a collection of veins might describe a delta as “sinewy,” but I suspect they’re in a minority. I rather think that a more usual reason writers describe a curving river as “sinewy” is that they are mixing the word up with sinuous.

sinewy: muscular
sinuous: curving and twisting

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