Can you come to terms with the language of medicine?

Apr 01, 2003

The technical language of medicine that we routinely use in describing various aspects of a diagnosis, prognosis and treatment often baffles clients who are unfamiliar with medical terminology. However, many medical terms that we commonly use in the English language are derived from words that were commonly spoken in Greek or Latin languages. Test your knowledge about the origin of the following medical terms.

1. Patient designates a person receiving care or treatment from a doctor, is derived from the Latin term "pati" meaning to suffer.

2. Placebo, a Latin term, is translated into English as, "I shall be pleasing." A placebo has been defined as a medical preparation having no pharmacologic activity against the patient's illness or complaint, and given with the primary intent of pleasing rather than benefiting the patient.

3. Stethoscope is derived from the Greek term "stetho" meaning chest or breast. Since anatomic locations other than the chest may be examined with this instrument, the Dutch prefer the term phonendoscope ("phonein" is a Greek word meaning sounding).

4. Diabetes, a word derived from Greek "dia" meaning "through" and "bainen" meaning "to go," literally means "to pass through." Diabetes was used to refer to conditions associated with formation of large volumes of urine. The Greek words "mellitus" (meaning honey and implying a sweet taste) and "insipidus" ("in" is a prefix meaning without, and "sapid" means taste) were then used to describe different types of diabetes. Diabetes mellitus meant that abnormal quantities of sugar were passing through the urinary tract, while diabetes insipidus meant abnormal quantities of tasteless (non-glucosuric) urine were being formed.

5. Duodenum is derived from the Latin term "duodeni" meaning 12. The first portion of the small intestine extending from the pylorus to the jejunum was so named because in humans it is about 12 fingerbreadths in length.

6. Jejunum is derived from the Latin term "jejunus" meaning "fasting" or "empty". Galen named the second part of the small intestine "nestis" (fasting) because he believed it was always found empty after death.

7. Ilium is the Latin word for flank and is used to designate the iliac bone in the pelvis. The third segment of the small intestine was called the ileum because in man the small intestines are largely supported by the iliac bone.

8. Rectum: This word is derived from the Latin word "rectus" meaning straight. Galen used this name for the terminal potion of the large intestine because he found it to be straight in many animals.

9. Artery is derived from the Greek terms "aer" which means "air", and "teren" which means "to keep." This derivation is related to the ancient belief that arteries were windpipes.

10. Nausea is defined as a feeling of sickness with an impulse to vomit. It is derived from the Greek word "nausia" meaning seasickness. The same Greek word is contained in the English words nautical and navigation.

11. Atlas was the Greek mythological titan who supported the world on his shoulders. In the 16th century, Vesalius gave this name to the first cervical vertebrae, which in man supports the head.

12. Patella: The word patella (designating the knee cap) is derived from the Latin term "patina", which is a small shallow pan or little plate. The patella of many animals resembles a small plate.

13. Scapula is derived from a Latin word meaning shovel. The use of this term to describe the shoulder blade is likely related to the common use of this bone as a spade.

14. Testis: The Latin word "testis" means witness. The word testicle is derived from the same Latin root term contained in the word testify. The use of this term to refer to the male genital organs of procreation is probably derived from the ancient custom of taking an oath with the hand on the testicles.

15. Uvula: The word uvula designating the caudal portion of the palate (roof of the mouth) is a Latin term meaning "little grape". At one time the palate was incorrectly thought to be the organ of taste, leading to the term palatable referring to tasty food.

16. Vagus: The term vagus, referring to the tenth cranial nerve with widespread distribution to the head, neck, thorax and abdomen, is a Latin word meaning "wandering". The English words vague and vagrant are derived from the same source.

17. Vitreous is derived from the Latin term "vitreus" meaning "glassy". It is applied to the vitreous humor of the eye. From the Latin term "vitrium" meaning "glass" comes the phrase "in-vitro" meaning in a glass receptacle. In vitro is in contrast with "in vivo" meaning in the living body.

18. Humor: The word humor is derived from the Latin term "umor" meaning moisture or fluid. It is used in anatomical nomenclature to designate certain fluid materials the body (i.e. aqueous and vitreous humor). It is also used in reference to the ancient humoral theory of disease. Empedocles, a student of Pythagorus in the 6th century B.C., proposed a humoral system of medicine that prevailed into the 19th century in human and veterinary medicine. The four humors were: phlegm (nasopharyngeal secretions) which is cold and moist; blood, which is hot and moist; black bile (from the kidneys and spleen), which is cold and dry, and; 4) yellow bile (secreted from the liver), which is hot and dry. When these four humors were in proper balance, individuals were considered to be in "good humor", a phrase which is still in use today. Blood, the hot humor, was considered to be in excess in patients with some disease, especially those associated with fever. A deficit of body heat prompted an initial diagnosis of what is still described as a "cold".

Likewise, the term melancholic (a Greek term meaning black bile) was used to describe a depressed patient's temperament. It was believed that good humor, or humoral balance, could be restored to ailing patients by removal of excessive quantities of bad humors. Thus the imedus for therapeutic blood-letting (known medically as venesection or phlebotomy).

19. Pituitary is derived from the Latin term "pituita" meaning mucous secretion. In the time of Galen, the mucus from the nose and mouth was thought to come from this structure. It has been suggested that the word "spit" comes from the same origin.

20. Iatrogenic: The Greek word "iatros" means physician, and is derived from the term "iasthai", which means to heal or cure. The term iatrogenic contains the root word "iatros", and the root word "gennan" which means "to create or produce". Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines iatrogenic as any adverse condition or complication in a patient occurring as a result of treatment by a physician. Because there is no comparable English word for adverse events in patients resulting from treatment by veterinarians, the word iatrogenic has been adopted by our profession. The fact that iatrogenic is often considered as a pathophysiologic mechanism of disease emphasizes that there are some patients we cannot help, but there are none we cannot harm.

21. Rx: This symbol means "recipe" and is commonly used to designate a medical prescription.