This is a new excerpt from my resource page about the science of fascia, the sheets of connective tissue that surround and permeate our anatomy. Many massage therapists believe that fascia can get “distorted,” and that their hands can “release” those troubled tissues for profound pain relief and other medical benefits. I believe they are mistaken and there’s no credible scientific inspiration for “fascial therapy.”
The similarity between the terms “fascia” and “fascism” has often been noted and played with, and it’s not a just a linguistic coincidence. This etymological digression was not an important addition to my fascia article, but it did add some good colour, and it was a delight to write about a rare convergence of three very different interests: language, musculoskeletal medicine, and ancient Rome. Together at last!
A Roman & his fascis. He also has a bunch of fascicles wrapped in fascia.
Fascis, fascicle, fascia, fascists!
The words fascia and fascism both come from the Latin word fascis, which first referred to leather straps, then to a bundle of sticks held together by them, and then including an axe. In Ancient Rome, the fascis symbolized political power, law, and jurisdiction, and it was a physical thing, a totem that was toted around by some actual Romans.
The fascis limped into the modern world as an abstract symbol of collective action, which was notoriously revitalized by the National Fascist Party in Italy in 1921: the National Strength-In-Numbers Party, in other words. But it was eclipsed by another symbol of fascism from the ancient world, the swastika, and today hardly anyone recognizes a fascis, even though it persists in all kinds of political and military iconography, despite the negative associations. “How the fasces survived is a mystery: Americans are sensitive, if not hypersensitive, to any potential endorsement of an enemy’s culture, language, or creed in times of war.”
The fascis is the spittin’ image of a bundle of muscle cells wrapped in connective tissue, and so we call that a fascicle, wrapped in fascia — the canonical example of fascia in the human body. A fascis only symbolized strength in numbers, but it is the literal purpose and function of a fascicle.
That’s a whole bunch of linguistic and conceptual convergence.
Etymologically rich trash talk
Skeptics about the clinical significance of fascia sometimes snarkily refer to fascia enthusiasts as “fascia-ists,” which is mostly intended as the cheap pun it sounds like. But its etymological roots go as deep as history, and the insult is more apt than either insulter or insultee realizes: it elegantly references the empty populism of fascism, suggesting that advocates for fascial therapy have nothing going for their claims except strength in numbers.
Fasces are used everywhere in the imagery of power, but the strongest link to fascism is in the symbol of Italy’s National Fascist Party, founded in 1921.
And what about “fascinate”?
Fascination is closely related to enchantment and still strongly connotes a magical effect: to be fascinated is to have one’s attention captured, as if under a spell. In ancient times, it was meant more literally. The Latin fascinum was a phallus-shaped amulet, a penis charm, and to “fascinate” was to use the power of the fascinum to enchant or bewitch. And what’s more enchanting than a penis, amiright? The Romans were really into their penis power, and I can’t imagine anything more Roman than superstitiously wearing a little cock-and-balls around your neck.
So this word similarity seems like a coincidence, but… I can’t help but notice that a fascis is also a rather phallic symbol. To a Roman, the fascis and fascinum might well have seemed like siblings, each broadly symbolizing potency, just in different contexts with different connotations.
This is all oversimplified to the brink of error, but history and etymology are messy, and there’s just too much detail and nuance and uncertainty to ever really get this kind of thing truly complete and correct. For instance, it’s not even clear whether it’s a “fascis” or a “fasces,” each one being used by credible sources. If I have readers with relevant expertise, please set me straight.