The Tensor has a convenient list of English words derived from Latin words with the diminutive -culus suffix; he adds:

The oddest one I found was muscle, which comes from the diminutive of mus ‘mouse’. According to the OED, this bit of oddness comes down to us from Indo-European: “The word for mouse also has the sense ‘muscle’ (esp. of the upper arm) in many Indo-European languages, e.g. Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Icelandic, ancient and Hellenistic Greek, post-classical Latin, and Armenian [woo-hoo!], app. because of the resemblance of a flexing muscle to the movements made by a mouse.”

(The bracketed excitement about Armenian is his, not mine.) He also includes “a few words that I would have guessed contained -culus, but don’t.”


  1. more oddities:
    mussel and musk also derive from IE mus-
    and nutmeg, from latin muscus, in spanish “nuez moscada”

  2. It’s interesting that the russian word for armpit is “podmyshka” (подмышка), which literally means “undermouse”. Thanks to this entry I found out the reason for this strange word.

  3. What for chrissake is odd about this? I surely must be hopelessly unfamiliar with a meaning of the words odd and oddity as used here. Hope to stay unfamiliar with it.

  4. Mus muscle is almost the same as мышь мышца in Russian.

  5. I mean, mus vs. muscle almost the same as мышь vs. мышца in Russian.

  6. The Italo-Greek (Griko-Salentino) word for “cat” múscio seems to be also based on a word for “mouse”. Ancient Greek had mys and myos. Standard Greek has gatos, an early loan word from Late Latin / Romance. In colloquial English, cats are sometimes referred to as “mousers” so the Italo-Greek word could be derived from an ancient dialectal Greek word meaning the same thing.

  7. I often noticed in Greek the suffix -têrion, meaning something like “place of”; hence thusiastêrion, place of sacrifice, or altar. So of course I started musing about ‘mustêrion’ (‘mystery’), and although its main meaning derives from mustês, ‘one initiated’, the very last entry in the Lexicon notes, “II. Dionysius the tyrant called mouse-holes mustêria”.
    No, I do not, otherwise, think like a tyrant.

  8. I think it’s not so much the movements of mucles that suggest the name, but the tapered look of a bundle of muscle fibers, making it look like a computer mouse or a resting rodent.

  9. Tensor hasn’t been reading my comments made on 8 August in the Wordorigins thread, has s/he? We were discussing the origin of the Latin name for “a little fig”, grossulus, and I seemed to remember that -ulus (not necessarily -culus) denotes a diminutive. Maybe someone here will tell me if I’m right.

  10. Eliza:
    -ulus is the diminutive suffix to o-/a-stem nouns, -culus to other types of noun (unrelated is -culum to verbal roots, which denotes instrumentality). Gross-us (o-stem) forms the diminutive gross-ulus.

  11. Thank you, Angelo! My Latin and I share two things – both of us are old and rusty.

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