Friday, January 10, 2014

On poppies, poop, and newborn babies

In honor of the recent birth of my second grandchild, I thought I'd look at some words related to newborns. Here are a few with interesting stories.
  • Fontanelle: A fontanelle is a gap in the skull of a newborn where the bones haven't yet grown together. A newborn's head features several fontanelles in various locations, but the big, roughly diamond-shaped one on top (AKA the soft spot) is the most noticeable. Unnerving as it can be when new parents feel this one, or notice that sometimes it pulses gently, it's a perfectly normal (and quite tough) anatomical feature that allows the skull to flex during birth and then deform to accommodate the rapidly growing brain after birth. By the time a child is two, the fontanelles have generally all closed. Fontanelle was originally used to mean the hollow between two muscles (I assume this refers to the indentation that appears on the skin covering the muscles), which resembles the low spot from which an underground spring issues. That explains why it comes from the Old French word fontenele, which refers to a small spring or fountain (it's the diminutive of fontaine, or spring).
  • Meconium: AKA baby's first poop. Before a newborn's digestive system gets to work on milk, it must process the things that went in before birth, which include amniotic fluid, bile, and mucus. The result is meconium, a dark green substance that is notoriously sticky and tarry, and that most babies excrete for their first day or so on the outside. It's a lot harder to clean up than normal baby poop, which makes those first few diaper changes more challenging than most of the ones that come after. Meconium is derived from the Greek word for opium, or poppy-juice, mekonion, because the dark green color of the two substances is similar. (Do stories of newborn always get around to poop eventually?)
    • Lanugo: Another component of meconium is called lanugo, which is a fine down that covers an unborn baby's body. The word lanugo is derived from the Latin word for down or wool, lana, which we also see in lanolin, the name for the greasy stuff that comes from sheep's wool. A fetus typically sheds its lanugo several weeks before birth, and the fine down is released into the amniotic fluid, which the baby drinks. (I know, ewww, but we all did it.)