The anatomy textbook1 I use for my students states that the prefix meta- means "between:"

The metaphyses (me-TAF-i-sez; meta = between; singular is metaphysis) are the regions between the diaphysis and the epiphysis. [my emphasis added]

This sounds reasonable given the explanation. However, I have never seen meta- applied in this manner; more generally, the suffix meta- usually seems to refer to "after."

In fact, Dr. Toby Arnold's Glossary of Anatomy provides the following etymology of the word metaphysis:

metaphysis: Greek meta = after, and physis = growth; hence, the end of the shaft of a bone alongside the epiphysial or growth cartilage [again, my emphasis added]

The latter explanation is somewhat underwhelming, but the etymological usage fits more with my prior experience with meta-.

So, which is it?

Can someone find a reputable source definitively indicating a clear anatomical/physiological explanation for why meta- was used in the case of "metaphysis"?

  • A webpage on EnglishLearner.com reports that our earliest usage of the term "metaphysis" came from an obstetrician named William Dorland (1864–1956) in the early 20th century. I couldn;t find additional info.

1. Tortora, G. J. and B. Derrickson. 2014. Principles of Anatomy & Physiology, 14th edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., USA.



word-forming element of Greek origin meaning 1. "after, behind; among, between," 2. "changed, altered," 3. "higher, beyond;" from Greek meta (prep.) "in the midst of; in common with; by means of; between; in pursuit or quest of; after, next after, behind," in compounds most often meaning "change" of place, condition, etc. This is from PIE *me- "in the middle" (source also of German mit, Gothic miþ, Old English mið "with, together with, among"). Notion of "changing places with" probably led to senses "change of place, order, or nature," which was a principal meaning of the Greek word when used as a prefix (but also denoting "community, participation; in common with; pursuing"). (Etymonline)


The growth plate, or physis, is the translucent, cartilaginous disc separating the epiphysis from the metaphysis and is responsible for longitudinal growth of long bones. (The Royal's Children Hospital Melbourne)

Anatomically and physiologically, meta- in metaphysis means next after physis (growth plate or epiphyseal plate) and refers to the changing (growing) part, which is in between the non-growing parts of a long bone (diaphysis and epiphysis):

The metaphysis is the wider portion of a long bone adjacent to the epiphyseal plate. It is this part of the bone that grows during childhood; as it grows, it ossifies near the diaphysis and the epiphyses. (Orthopaedicsone)

enter image description here

Picture: Parts of the bone (Radiopedia, Creative Commons license)

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, @Jan. I was surprised to see meta referring to "between", but I now know it's not unprecedented. A comment on your last point though... So -physis is actually the part of the word referring to "growing" (changing), but you got me to thinking: the epiphyseal plate (associated with the metaphysis) is all about growing the bone's length (i.e., "beyond"), so I wonder if this is the physiological explanation for the etymology?? $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Feb 11 '20 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ Again, I appreciate you finding the linguistic source, but could your try to provide a source that supports your last paragraph directly? Makes sense to me too, but I'm curious to see a reputable indication of Dorland's reasoning (or modern physiological interpretation thereof) $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Feb 11 '20 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ consider metaphase, between-phase. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 12 '20 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @theforestecologist, I made it simpler: anatomically and physiologically, meta- in metaphysis means "next after" physis and "between" diaphysis and epiphysis. $\endgroup$ – Jan Feb 12 '20 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @John duhhh. Wow, you just made me realize I've explored this very question before but focused on metaphase previously. Of course, meta is between in that context! Oy I knew that! (I need more sleep before I post questions :p). Thanks, Jan, for the updates! $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Feb 12 '20 at 13:11

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