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Perhaps it is the rise in the popularity of body piercing that has made the word tragus a more recognizable word.
When I first came across the word I was surprised that this particular body part even had a name.
I suppose that in specialist circles every part of the body has a name. Physicians concerned with the square inch of our physique in which they specialize have to build up a vocabulary to describe its every nuance.
Body piercing is old hat when it comes to ears but traditionally ear rings are poked through the ear lobe. Perhaps poking a hole through the tragus was the next logical step because the tragus is the little bump that partially covers the ear hole through which sound enters your head on its way to the ear drum.
Every little bump and notch in the human ear has a name but I have to say that tragus is the funniest.
The word appeared in English in a medical dictionary in 1693.
Then as now medical words often had Latin roots but in this case the Latin root reaches further back to Greek. Rufus of Ephesus was a Greek physician of about 2000 years ago and is the first person known to have named this bump on the ear a tragus.
I think that the reason it was called a tragus shows a sense of humor in the ancient Greeks.
Before the bump on the ear was called a tragus a common domestic animal was known as tragus in Greek.
If you know any men with little tufts of hair growing out of their ears you’ll appreciate the connection.
Tragus in Greek meant “billy-goat” and the tuft of hair protruding from someone’s ear was being likened to the billy-goat’s beard.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.