Tuesday, 5 August 2014

calf in our leg and calf in a field

Recently, at an exercise class, as the teacher encouraged us to 'stretch our calves', I wondered whether this word is related to the word for a young animal - calf.

Some internet sites say the words are related historically, because the large fleshy back of the human leg can be thought to look like the shape of a young cow or bull. I can't really see this, but maybe our ancestors who lived by cattle herding might have been more attuned to such things.

Of course, I had to experiment. Who wouldn't? So here's a photo of my own calf.

Nope. Doesn't make me think of baby cows. So I tried turning the photo...

Hmmm. I decided to check the dictionary again.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
"young cow," Old English cælf (Anglian cælf) "young cow," from Proto-Germanic *kalbam (cognates: Middle Dutch calf, Old Norse kalfr, German Kalb, Gothic kalbo, perhaps from PIE *gelb(h)-, from root *gel- "to swell," hence, "womb, fetus, young of an animal." Elliptical sense of "leather made from the skin of a calf" is from 1727. Used of icebergs that break off from glaciers from 1818. 

The idea of a connection with the root meaning "to swell", might explain the connection, I suppose, since this muscle swells and shrinks as we move our legs.

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