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Why are Medical Terms in Latin and Greek?

by Dr.Sal MD on author

medical books

Latin and ancient Greek have been dead for more than a thousand years. So why do doctors still say Olecranon when elbow would suffice? Listening to two doctors banter you can get the feeling that Julius Ceasar would feel right at home jumping into the conversation.

Every profession creates a lexicon of jargon familiar only to their initiates like the secret handshakes of Freemasons. But contrary to what you might think, the reason we speak in 'medicalese' is not to be able to ‘talk behind your back’ while in front of you, to look smart, be pretentious, or to complicate, hide, obfuscate, confuse, perplex, hornswoggle, or discombobulate. We do it for precision.

For example, suppose you fall from your bicycle and break your elbow. In the ER I take a look and call the Orthopedic resident for advice. If I say “s/he broke their elbow,” the resident has a very loose image to work with. It might not seem like it, but the elbow’s a big place. The grumpy orthopod will be ripped away from the warm on-call room and forced to come down and see for themselves. With 'medispeak' I have a rich descriptive glossary to pull from: olecranon, styloid, epicondyle, ulnar groove, anterior fat pad, lateral, medial, superior, inferior, dorsal, ventral etc. With it I can weave an articulate image so robust that the orthopedic surgeon can use my vocabulary as their eyes and give me appropriate instructions over the phone. I get be to be the hero getting you on your way, and they can finish watching House in the call room. Win-win-win. Precision is power.

Medical record keeping started long before computers or even the ability to record sound and images. Doctors had to rely on handwritten notes to capture the essence of each encounter for themselves, their colleagues, and their successors. Specific descriptions were needed to avoid confusion when looking back on notes later on. The solution was the creation of an extensive catalogue of medical terms mapped to granular medical details. It just so happens that this drive was done during the dominance of Latin and Greek as the languages of the learned. Those names have persisted to today. And they are virtually independent of borders. For example, in North America referring to your fingers I'll write 'phalanges' in my English chart notes. For a Spanish doctor the same term is 'falanges'. For a French doctor reading it's still 'phalanges'. For a German physician it's 'phalangen'. And for an Italian surgeon it's 'falangi'. So these Latin and Greek medical terms have become almost like a medical Esperanto (universal language) in the global medical community.

"Medispeak" is actually easier to pick up than Klingon or Elvish. Our technical words which look like tongue gymnastics are rule based, constructed by combining Greek or Latin descriptors with regular English baked around them. For example, the word ‘hematoma’ - the name for those cartoon lumps on Wile E. Coyote’s head after a good whack - is derived from 'haimato' and 'oma' meaning to any Greek in Aristotle's time “blood” and “a swelling” respectively. Here’s a round of further examples to see how our Frankenstein terms are stitched together:

Medical jargon exists and persists because it permits doctors to be clear when they speak. When you say “I broke my wrist” that might suffice to explain to your drinking buddy why you can’t make it to a weekend pub crawl, but talking to a surgeon, there are eight bones in your wrist, two long bones attached to them at one end, and another five from the other end. When I talk to that same surgeon and I say you broke your “scaphoid bone” we are immediately together on the same page. Some people think that Latin medical jargon is there to appear smart or keep outsiders, well... outside. I think they are mixing us up with lawyers :)


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