The Language of Medicine


When you have completed this section, you should be able to

• explain why modern anatomical terminology is so heavily based on Greek and Latin;

• recognize eponyms when you see them;

• describe the efforts to achieve an internationally uniform anatomical terminology;

• break medical terms down into their basic word elements;

• state some reasons why the literal meaning of a word may not lend insight into its definition;

• relate singular noun forms to their plural forms; and

• discuss why precise spelling is important in anatomy and physiology.

One of the greatest challenges faced by students of anatomy and physiology is the vocabulary. In this book, you will encounter such Latin terms as corpus callosum (a brain structure), ligamentum arteriosum (a small fibrous band near the heart), and extensor carpi radialis longus (a forearm muscle). You may wonder why structures aren't named in "just plain English," and how you will ever remember such formidable names. This section will give you some answers to these questions and some useful tips on mastering anatomical terminology.

The History of Anatomical Terminology

The major features of human gross anatomy have standard international names prescribed by a book titled the Terminologia Anatomica (TA). The TA was codified in 1998 by an international body of anatomists, the Federative Committee on Anatomical Terminology, and approved by professional associations of anatomists in more than 50 countries.

About 90% of today's medical terms are formed from just 1,200 Greek and Latin roots. Scientific investigation began in ancient Greece and soon spread to Rome. The Greeks and Romans coined many of the words still used in human anatomy today: uterus, prostate, cerebellum, diaphragm, sacrum, amnion, and others. In the Renaissance, the fast pace of anatomical discovery required a

Saladin: Anatomy & 1. Major Themes of Text © The McGraw-Hill

Physiology: The Unity of Anatomy and Physiology Companies, 2003

Form and Function, Third Edition

20 Part One Organization of the Body profusion of new terms to describe things. Anatomists in different countries began giving different names to the same structures. Adding to the confusion, they often named new structures and diseases in honor of their esteemed teachers and predecessors, giving us such non-descriptive terms as the crypts of Lieberkühn and duct of Santorini. Terms coined from the names of people, called eponyms,18 afford little clue as to what a structure or condition is.

In hopes of resolving this growing confusion, anatomists began meeting as early as 1895 to try to devise a uniform international terminology. After several false starts, anatomists agreed on a list of terms titled the Nomina Anatomica (NA), which rejected all eponyms and gave each structure a unique Latin name to be used worldwide. Even if you were to look at an anatomy atlas in Japanese or Arabic, the illustrations may be labeled with the same Latin terms as in an English-language atlas. The NA served for many decades until recently replaced by the TA, which prescribes both Latin names and accepted English equivalents. The terminology in this book conforms to the TA except where undue confusion would result from abandoning widely used, yet unofficial terms.

Analyzing Medical Terms

The task of learning medical terminology seems overwhelming at first, but there is a simple trick to becoming more comfortable with the technical language of medicine. People who find scientific terms confusing and difficult to pronounce, spell, and remember usually feel more confident once they realize the logic of how terms are composed. A term such as hyponatremia is less forbidding once we recognize that it is composed of three common word elements: hypo- (below normal), natri- (sodium), and -emia (blood condition). Thus, hyponatremia is a deficiency of sodium in the blood. Those word elements appear over and over in many other medical terms: hypothermia, natri-uretic, anemia, and so on. Once you learn the meanings of hypo-, natri-, and -emia, you already have the tools at least to partially understand hundreds of other biomedical terms. In appendix C, you will find a lexicon of the 400 word elements most commonly footnoted in this book.

Scientific terms are typically composed of one or more of the following elements:

• At least one root (stem) that bears the core meaning of the word. In cardiology, for example, the root is cardi-(heart). Many words have two or more roots. In cytochrome, the roots are cyt- (cell) and chrom- (color).

• Combining vowels that are often inserted to join roots and make the word easier to pronounce. In cytochrome, for example, the first o is a combining vowel. Although o is the most common combining

18epo = after, related to + nym = name vowel, all vowels of the alphabet are used in this way, such as a in ligament, e in vitreous, the first i in spermicidal, u in ovulation, and y in tachycardia. Some words have no combining vowels. A combination of a root and combining vowel is called a combining form: for example, ost (bone) + e (a combining vowel) make the combining form oste-, as in osteology.

• A prefix may be present to modify the core meaning of the word. For example, gastric (pertaining to the stomach or to the belly of a muscle) takes on a wide variety of new meanings when prefixes are added to it: epigastric (above the stomach), hypogastric (below the stomach), endogastric (within the stomach), and digastric (a muscle with two bellies).

• A suffix may be added to the end of a word to modify its core meaning. For example, microscope, microscopy, microscopic, and microscopist have different meanings because of their suffixes alone. Often two or more suffixes, or a root and suffix, occur together so often that they are treated jointly as a compound suffix; for example, log (study) + y (process) form the compound suffix -logy (the study of).

To summarize these basic principles, consider the word gastroenterology, a branch of medicine dealing with the stomach and small intestine. It breaks down into: gastro/ entero/logy gastro = a combining form meaning "stomach" entero = a combining form meaning "small intestine" logy = a compound suffix meaning "the study of"

"Dissecting" words in this way and paying attention to the word-origin footnotes throughout this book will help make you more comfortable with the language of anatomy. Knowing how a word breaks down and knowing the meaning of its elements make it far easier to pronounce a word, spell it, and remember its definition. There are a few unfortunate exceptions, however. The path from original meaning to current usage has often become obscured by history (see insight 1.4). The foregoing approach also is no help with eponyms or acronyms—words composed of the first letter, or first few letters, of a series of words. For example, calmodulin, a calcium-binding protein found in many cells, is cobbled together from a few letters of the three words, calcium modulating protein.

Insight 1.4 Medical History

Obscure Word Origins

The literal translation of a word doesn't always provide great insight into its modern meaning. The history of language is full of twists

Saladin: Anatomy & I 1. Major Themes of I Text I I © The McGraw-Hill

Physiology: The Unity of Anatomy and Physiology Companies, 2003 Form and Function, Third Edition and turns that are fascinating in their own right and say much about the history of human culture, but they can create confusion for students.

For example, the amnion is a transparent sac that forms around the developing fetus. The word is derived from amnos, from the Greek for "lamb." From this origin, amnos came to mean a bowl for catching the blood of sacrificial lambs, and from there the word found its way into biomedical usage for the membrane that emerges (quite bloody) as part of the afterbirth. The acetabulum, the socket of the hip joint, literally means "vinegar cup." Apparently the hip socket reminded an anatomist of the little cups used to serve vinegar as a condiment on dining tables in ancient Rome. The word testicles literally means "little witnesses." The history of medical language has several amusing conjectures as to why this word was chosen to name the male gonads.

Singular and Plural Forms

A point of confusion for many beginning students is how to recognize the plural forms of medical terms. Few people would fail to recognize that ovaries is the plural of ovary, but the connection is harder to make in other cases: for example, the plural of cortex is cortices (COR-ti-sees), the plural of corpus is corpora, and the plural of epididymis is epididymides (EP-ih-DID-ih-MID-eze). Table 1.2 will help you make the connection between common singular and plural noun terminals.

Table 1.2 Singular and Plural Forms of Some Noun Terminals

Singular Ending

Plural Ending




axilla, axillae



thorax, thoraces



lumen, lumina



cortex, cortices



diagnosis, diagnoses



epididymis, epididymides



appendix, appendices



carcinoma, carcinomata



ganglion, ganglia



septum, septa



viscus, viscera



villus, villi



corpus, corpora



phalanx, phalanges



ovary, ovaries



calyx, calices

Chapter 1 Major Themes of Anatomy and Physiology 21

The Importance of Precision

A final word of advice for your study of anatomy and physiology: Be precise in your use of terms. It may seem trivial if you misspell trapezius as trapezium, but in doing so, you would be changing the name of a back muscle to the name of a wrist bone. Similarly, changing occipitalis to occipital or zygomaticus to zygomatic changes other muscle names to bone names. A "little" error such as misspelling ileum as ilium changes the name of the final portion of the small intestine to the name of the hip bone. Changing malleus to malleolus changes the name of a middle-ear bone to the name of a bony protuberance of your ankle. Elephantiasis is a disease that produces an elephant-like thickening of the limbs and skin. Many people misspell this elephantitis; if such a word existed, it would mean inflammation of an elephant.

The health professions demand the utmost attention to detail and precision—people's lives may one day be in your hands. The habit of carefulness must extend to your use of language as well. Many patients have died because of miscommunication in the hospital.

Before You Go On

Answer the following questions to test your understanding of the preceding section:

18. Explain why modern anatomical terminology is so heavily based on Greek and Latin.

19. Distinguish between an eponym and an acronym, and explain why both of these present difficulties for interpreting anatomical terms.

20. Break each of the following words down into its roots and affixes and state their meanings, following the example of gastroenterology analyzed earlier: pericardium, appendectomy, subcutaneous, phonocardiogram, otorhinolaryngology. Consult the list of word elements in appendix C for help.

21. Write the singular form of each of the following words: pleurae, gyri, nomina, ganglia, fissures. Write the plural form of each of the following: villus, tibia, encephalitis, cervix, stoma.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Essentials of Human Physiology

Essentials of Human Physiology

This ebook provides an introductory explanation of the workings of the human body, with an effort to draw connections between the body systems and explain their interdependencies. A framework for the book is homeostasis and how the body maintains balance within each system. This is intended as a first introduction to physiology for a college-level course.

Get My Free Ebook


  • albert
    Why precise spelling is important in anatomy and physiology?
    8 years ago
    Why are combining vowels added to the word root/stem?
    4 years ago
  • daniela
    Why might the literal meaning of a word lend insight into its definition?
    4 years ago

Post a comment