Nomenclature system for anatomical terminology

In the late 1800s, anatomists from several nations devised an international system for anatomical terminology. This system, the Nomina Anatomica (NA) was officially published in the 1950s and served very well for quite a long time.

The latter decades of the 20th century saw an explosion of interest in, and consequently material about, human anatomy. Due in part to better and faster communication and the modern profusion of health information, many people have taken a more active role in their own health care. Also, there has been a boom in the ancillary medical fields such as medical transcription, medical assisting and emergency medical services. The expanding number of people needing a good foundation in human anatomy has led to an unprecedented number of textbooks and anatomical atlases on the market and journals devoted to the subject of anatomy.

By the end of the century, the universal accord with which the NA was adopted in 1955 had pretty well died down. Despite efforts to keep the system current, the dozens of organizations which keep track of anatomical nomenclature throughout the world (Ye gods! the mind reels at the thought of that many PhD's, fighting over that much Latin!!!) were growing a bit dissatisfied with the NA. The old system was found to have many inconsistencies; muscles, for example, were sometimes named descriptively and sometimes were not. Some terms were not unique but could refer to more than one part of the body. Also, the NA's mixing of Latin with terms from the Greek language was confounding to some.

In the 1990's, a bunch of these experts banded together as the Federative Committee on Anatomical Terminology and developed a new system, called Terminologia Anatomica (TA). The TA was painstakingly crafted to answer all of the problems that the older system left unaddressed. Upon its publication in 1998, the system was enthusiastically approved by the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists.

The TA is not just an alphabetic listing of terms. It is a carefully structured informational system. Each term is carefully placed in an overall semantic organizational framework which enhances and expands the meaning and adds context. In the newer system, the body is divided into 13 systems as opposed to the NA's seven–some parts are listed in more than one system. The TA uses most of the older system's terms, but they have been expanded in many cases and fit into a comprehensive framework using nested lists, fonts and other design elements to facilitate understandability. Ambiguous terms have been clarified and synonyms cross-referenced. The result is extraordinary–clear, well-designed and very easy to use (okay, it seems a bit daunting at first, but the longer you look at it, the more sense it seems to make).

The current TA is available in a huge, magnificent book set and also on CD-ROM–the first edition boasts over 150,000 entries, all carefully indexed and cross-referenced. There is also an alphanumeric coding system wherein each anatomical structure has a specific code for easy reference. The TA's terms are almost entirely derived from the Latin language and the system is designed to be updated and revised periodically by the international organization that designed it.

There are some significant differences between the TA and the older system, and a few odd inconsistencies, which are still getting hammered out for future editions. Some journals and books are now putting the older (NA) term in parentheses after the newer (TA) term, like so: "fibularis longus (peroneus longus)". Most major medical dictionaries, anatomical atlases and other reference works have started incorporating TA terms.

If we are lucky, this system will last a long time and we won't have to re-learn the names for the muscles and bones yet again!

Book review of "Atlas of Palpatory Anatomy of Limbs and Trunk" from Physical Therapy Aug 2004, p 769.
Federative Committee on Anatomical Terminology, "Terminologia Anatomica," (Thieme, Stuttgart, 1998).
Rose, Cornelius, "Terminologia Anatomica Considered from the Perspective of Next-Generation Information Sources" available as a PDF file from

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