Doctors have a language all of their own that’s basically Greek to most non-medical folk. Given that the Greeks founded modern medicine — cue the Hippocratic Oath — it’s no surprise that many common medical words actually originate from Greek. And that’s why anyone who hasn’t studied classical languages might find it difficult to understand.
But like all aspects of language, the influences in medical terminology didn’t remain static and a lot of the medical language used to this day is more modern (sort of) with ties to the early days of the study of anatomy in the Renaissance.
Thanks to the prominent role of Italian medical schools, Latin was used to describe various parts of the body or the “anatomy” (which comes from the Greek “to cut up.”).
Read on to find out the origins and meanings of some common medical words.
Common Medical Terms
“Hospital” is such a common word that it’s hard to remember it actually has a meaning. But hospital is a word with a long and rich history. According to Merriam Webster, it was first used in the 14th century and is derived from the Middle English ospital, which was a “residence for pilgrims and travelers, charitable institution providing residence for the poor and infirm.”
This was borrowed from Anglo-French, which borrowed the word from the Medieval Latin hospitāle. While today’s hospitals are a far cry from their earliest versions, the activities conducted in a hospital have been the same throughout history — caring for the ill and the sick.
There’s something wonderfully quaint and English about the words “operating theater.” Though it’s a less common term in the United States, it’s still worth knowing that early operating rooms were called theaters because they were built in a gallery style for public observation.
The earliest types of operating theaters were based on 16th century anatomy theaters in Padua or Bologna, Italy. Watching operations was such a draw (this was the 19th century and, to be honest, there wasn’t that much else going on) that surgery was advertised in the papers and surgeons often received a round of applause at the end of a procedure.
The word “surgery” is practically unchanged from its Middle English origin surgerie. Which comes to us via the Greek cheirourgia, which itself comes from the Greek for working with the hand (cheirourgos) and then transformed into the Latin chirugia.
The word may have changed very little, but its ancient origins are evidence of just how long doctors have been helping to heal the sick.
If you’re undergoing an operation, you’ll be glad you probably won’t remember a thing — and you certainly won’t feel it. Before you take some nice deep breaths and count backwards, you might be interested to know the word “anesthesia” comes from Greek and means “without sensation,” which anyone who has ever had surgery under either general or local anesthetic will attest.
But going under the surgeon’s knife hasn’t always been so pain-free. Early attempts at dulling the senses for medical practices included alcohol, opium and mandrake fruit extract — which definitely did not work — and finally our modern and strictly controlled anesthesia.
Unless you’re watching a medical drama, the one word you hope to never hear is “stat!” In an operation room, it’s generally a sign that things are getting serious, and someone better do something quick. In fact, stat comes from the Latin word statim, which means “immediately,” but rolls off the tongue more easily. “Nurse Hathaway. Pass me the scalpel — statim!”
Not all medical words are centuries old, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have ancient roots. Take the word “biopsy“, for example. It’s a tissue sample taken for testing purposes. It only entered the medical lexicography in 1879 when it was introduced by French dermatologist Ernest Besnier as biopsie, which reflects the Greek (naturally!) words for life bios and a sight opsis.
Hypo and Hyper
Medical terms might seem a bit confusing, but once you have a basic understanding of the way many words begin or end, things start to look a little clearer. Take the common words “hypo” and “hyper,” for instance.
The prefix hypo means low, under, beneath, down, or below normal, as in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyposensitivity (under sensitivity).
The opposite of hypo is hyper, which is where we get words like hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), hyperactive, and hyperventilate.
Suffixes, or word endings, also help out when you’re not quite sure of what a medical term might mean. Once you know that “ologist” means — an “expert in a branch of learning” (from the Greek word logy, which means the study of) — you can understand why doctors that specialize in particular areas of medicine are ologists.
For example, dermatologists are specialists in the skin (from the Greek for skin or hide). Cardiologists are heart specialists (from the Latinized form of the Greek kardia or heart). And gynecologists are specialists in women (once again, from the Greek gynaikos meaning woman).
Ectomy and Otomy
If you’ve ever wondered what different surgical procedures mean, it turns out (surprise, surprise) the name gives it away in many instances. For example, the suffix “ectomy” means the removal of a part of the body, i.e. tonsillectomy or appendectomy to name a couple of common operations.
Then there are words ending in “otomy,” which indicates cutting into a certain part of the body, without going so far as to remove it. So, a gastrostomy would mean cutting into the stomach (a gastrectomy would mean the removal of all or part of the stomach) and a tracheotomy is a procedure for opening a direct airway through an incision in the windpipe.
Of course, we can’t discuss medical terms without giving a nod to the current medical anomaly we are all currently living through. Hopefully you haven’t had to be quarantined, but if you have, did you know what it means?
It actually dates back to Venice in the Middle Ages when, in a bid to protect the important port from the plague, ships had to sit off-shore for 40 days, or quarantena, before their crews or passengers could embark onto dry land. And we think we’ve got it bad these days.
The Future of Medical Terminology
It’s impossible to predict where the future is going to take surgery. We already have terms that would have been alien to anyone practicing surgery just a few decades ago, such as “robotic assisted surgery” or “telemedicine”.
No matter what developments happen, we’ll no doubt continue to look backwards throughout history to name and understand future developments and inventions.