The Grammarphobia Blog

Are armpits “axillae” or “axillas”?

Q: I’m a physician who frequently dictates reports with medical terms of Latin origin like “axilla” and “hernia.” Since none of us are Latin scholars these days, would it be acceptable to use Anglicized plurals: “axillas,” “hernias,” etc.?

A: Feel free to use the Anglicized plurals of the two words you mention.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says “axilla” has two plurals in English. You may correctly use either the Latinate “axillae” or the Anglicized “axillas.”

The variants are joined by “or,” which the dictionary says means that “the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants.”

“Both are standard,” M-W adds, “and either one may be used according to personal inclination.”

“Hernia” has two plurals as well: “hernias” and “herniae,” also joined by “or” in Merriam-Webster’s. But here, “hernias” has a slight edge.

As M-W explains: “If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order, they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.”

As for other medical terms derived from Latin or Greek words, our advice is to check a recent dictionary.

In English, the plurals of these classical words tend to become Anglicized over time, which is a good reason for keeping your dictionary up to date.

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