Inanimate Objects With Body Issues

Eyes to see, hands to...?

Ever caressed your watch’s face with love? Or pulled over to the shoulder of a tired road so you could massage it? Probably not. That would be weird. But you may have recognized that English sometimes uses body-part words to identify features of non-human things. Let's look at inanimate objects that we give anatomy!

Bed...

...with a head and a foot.

No rocket science here. The words head and foot signify the parts forming the uppermost or lowermost sections of something (which also happen to be the areas where the head and feet go on a mattress, in this case). Head and foot are also used as a pair to describe upper and lower ends of a page, a table, a cigar, and a staircase (although we usually say “top of the stairs”).

There’s a difference between the foot of a bed (referring to the part of the mattress where we rest our tootsies) and the feet of a bed. If we say the latter, we’re referring to the parts of the bedframe that touches the ground. So, funny enough, we put our feet at the foot and rest our bodies on the feet!

Bread Loaf or Ladder...

...with a heel.

Because of its resemblance to the back part of the human foot, either end of a loaf of bread is called a heel.

Heel also describes the lower end of vertical objects, such as a ladder. The heel of the ladder (also sometimes called a butt...) is the end placed on the ground. The verb form to heel refers to the careful control of the base of a large ladder in attempting to raise it up. Heeling, a common practice in firefighting, involves standing on the heel or butt of the ladder (on the bottom rung) and allowing body weight to fall back while holding on to the ladder to slowly raise the tip in the air. If you can heel a ladder’s butt, you're in great shape!

Chair...

...with arms and legs.

Arms and legs refer to any projecting parts or appendages of something that resemble arms or legs. Simple. If a chair (or other piece of furniture) has slender leglike supports, then it’s got legs to stand on. And if it has armlike appendages, it has arms—which, in many cases, might be armrests, usually padded to make the (human) forearms nice ‘n comfy.

A popular myth tells of how Victorian Americans were so sexually repressed they had to conceal voluptuous furniture legs. The myth sprung after English Captain Frederick Marryat’s 1830s trip to America, which he documented in a published diary. Cloaking sexy table gams was probably a joke, but Marryat recorded that American women opted to say “limb” because they thought “leg” was too obscene.

Clock...

...with face and hands.

Like all other words discussed here, face is a polysemous word (with multiple meanings), used in this context to denote the side of an object on which the use of that object depends. So on a clock, the time-telling functionality depends on the clock having a visible surface by which to tell the time. The clock’s hands are indicators on the face that point, like human hands, to the hours and minutes of the day.

Clocks didn’t always have faces or hands. One of the oldest surviving clocks from the 1300s is a striking clock, with only a bell to strike the passing of time. The clock face wasn’t introduced until the late 1300s, and the word hands in the sense of watch or clock hands wasn’t used until the 1570s.

Comb, Saw, Wheel, Cog...

...with teeth.

As you’ve probably noticed in our list, a lot of our body-related words are used simply because the particular feature of the object resembles the physical form of—or serves a similar function as—the body part used to describe it. In this case, the projections of a comb, saw, wheel, or cog loosely resemble human teeth (maybe?), but, to a greater degree, they mimic the actions of the teeth: separating, breaking down, cutting in, and grinding. The size of the teeth—and, for saws, wheels, and cogs, the angles at which the teeth are cut—results in different ‘separating’ abilities and efficiencies.

When we say we’re going over something “with a fine-tooth comb,” we’re being meticulous in separating the component strands (literal or metaphorical) of whatever we’re looking at.

Golf Club...

...with a toe. And a lot more.

Since the golf club resembles a Baby Tin Man’s foot on a pole, it comes as no surprise that the parts of the club’s base (awkwardly, the head of the club, rather than the foot) incorporate feet-related terminology, like toe for the tip, sole for the base, and heel for the back end. This might lead one to think that the head should actually be called the foot. However, the uppermost part of the golf club head is called the crown, and—true to our earlier glimpse at clocks’ body issues—the side of the head that the whole club depends on is called the face, where the head meets the ball.

In some wild phantasmagoria, through language we’ve transformed a simple swinging stick into a head-foot titanium blob with a face.

Lettuce or Palm Trees...

...with hearts.

Isn’t it lovely to know that at the center of many green leafy vegetables, like varieties of lettuce and palm, lies the heart of the plant? After all, leafy greens are so good for us (and our anatomical hearts). Here, heart means the core or innermost part of something.

The French word for heart, coeur, closely resembles the English word core, and both words relate to the Latin cor, which has its own origins in the Proto-Indo-European root kerd (heart). The core-heart connection is thousands of years old! Kerd (cor) is at the heart of words like accord, cordial, courage, and credit. So, the next time you eat artichoke heart dip, or a hearts of palm salad (with avocado and cherry tomatoes, we hope), give yourself credit for being so cordial to your body!

Needle or Stove...

...with eyes.

The eye of a needle, hearkening back to Old English, is located opposite the pointy end, and is made of a loop of metal that resembles a miniscule elliptical eye shape. A common reference to the figurative needle’s eye is from a biblical verse (Matthew 19:24): “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And sometimes it’s easier to ride a camel bareback in the desert than thread a needle.

Particularly in Southern regions of the US, the word eye is also used to refer to one of the (usually) circular, sometimes coiled, burners on a stovetop.

Road...

...with shoulders.

Unlike what we’ve seen before with an object’s features in some way resembling the appearance or function of the body part (i.e. needle’s eye, cog’s teeth), the sense of shoulder here is less about the shoulder-like projections of the road (because, unless the road is actually on someone’s back, it won’t look like it has shoulders). Instead, shoulder seems to convey more of the general spatial concept of the "outer edges or borders of something." This figurative usage is actually relatively recent, going back to around 1933.

A road’s shoulders can be hard or soft: a soft shoulder is where the road’s edges are unpaved and aren’t safe to drive on. A hard shoulder is the paved edge alongside the road with enough space for making emergency stops.

Roof...

...with hips.

Let’s talk about joints. So many construction terms borrow from human anatomy that it would take another slideshow to go over even a few of them. It’s no wonder that the idea of the anatomical joint (where two bones meet) coincides with the construction joint (where two pieces of wood or other building material are joined together). Hips are joints in both senses!

A roof with hips is different from a roof with gables. A gabled roof is the standard roof kids like to draw, with two sloping sides that peak at the ridge, forming a triangular shape. Hip or hipped roofs are a little more sleek and more complex, thus requiring more mature drawing skills. They slope down from all four sides of the ridge, creating a surface with more angles and planes. So hip.

Sail (of a ship)...

...with a belly.

A ship is another entity linguistically anthropomorphized with body parts (you’ll see a second ship example in a minute). The word belly is used for the interior space of a ship below deck, as well as for the swell of the sails when they become filled with air. Unlike the cavity of a ship though, the sails are a bit more agentive, like humans: they can both have a belly and can engage in the act of bellying. So, at the same time, if a sail’s got a good belly, it must also be bellying, or fattening up on the wind.

Ship...

...with skin.

Another "anthro-nautical" term is the skin of a ship’s hull (the hollow, lowermost part of the ship that partially submerges in the water). The skin (also called shell plating) is the outer layer of the hull, and is usually made of steel welded to the hull’s framework. This is a crucial component of the ship because it ensures water-tightness. The plates of steel composing the skin can range in thickness, helping to reinforce the strength and impermeability of the ship without adding too much weight.

When you think about it, the concept of skin as protective barrier, keeping good things in and bad things out, is imperative to the survival of all things animate and inanimate. It’s no wonder we have so many uses for the term!

Shoe, Flame...

...plus Buckle or Bell...

...with a tongue.

What is it about the tongue that lends itself as a term for so many completely different things? In the case of a shoe tongue, maybe it’s the similarity in shape between the oblong human tongue and the flap of material under the shoe’s lacing. For the flickering flame, perhaps the candle’s lapping lighted wick reminds us of the tongue’s ability to curl, roll, wiggle, and contort. The thin metal pin of a buckle or brooch is somewhat harder to relate to the tongue, although a buckle’s tongue is designed to fit perfectly in an orifice. Hm. Finally, the tongue of a bell is the piece of metal suspended within the cavity (yes, another oral reference) to produce beautiful tintinnabulation, or resounding ringing sounds.

Umbrella...

...with ribs.

The ribs of an umbrella act in a surprisingly similar way to human ribs: they protect the person under the umbrella (the internal organs of the body), provide a framework to support the fabric as it stretches (the upper body muscles), and allow the fabric (respiratory system) to expand and contract. Rib is an Old English word deriving from Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European, and Greek forms relating to “covering” and “roof.” It makes sense that umbrellas and architectural groin vaults (had to throw in another body part!) are supported by ribs.

From head and shoulders to heels and toes, we’ve explored parts of ourselves we didn’t know we had!

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