A Fear of Medical Words

I've long had an interest in words and a fear of them. The interest dates from early childhood. Of that I am sure. It probably came from my mother who was an ardent reader and superb letter writer and a stickler for spelling and correct grammar. ("Love" has an "e" at the end. People don't sweat; they perspire, etc.)

When I was in the 8th grade, everyone in my class took the Time Current Events test. The prize awarded by Time magazine was a book of your choice. As one of the winners, what book would I take? I chose Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I had to endure the kidding of my peers that I had picked a book with "very short stories."

My 8th grade prize dictionary served me well although it was certainly true that it was a book with "very short stories." And some of the stories, the definitions, were dry, dull and, in some cases, very dense.

For example, the definition of "Boolean" (as in a Boolean computer search) was: "Of, relating to, or being a logical combinatorial system (as Boolean algebra) that represents symbolically relationships (as those implied by the logical operators AND, OR, and NOT) between entities...."

This definition and some of the others in my prize dictionary told me little or nothing I could understand. However, most of the definitions I looked at were clear and helpful.

In college, I figured to go into engineering like my older brother but after a year decided to major in French. I found that studying French taught me as much or more about English as French. After college I was a graduate student in French and then went into the Army. Uncle Sam had me spend a year studying Russian. I then served two more years as an interpreter-translator (French, German and Russian).

A friend from high school days and college had decided on what he wanted to do before me. While still in college he applied to medical school and was admitted. I remember asking him how he thought he could survive in medical school without knowing Latin and Greek, since so many medical words come from these languages. I was awed and afraid of the words in medicine. My friend was admitted to medical school and made it through despite his ignorance of Latin and Greek.

After coming out of the service, I did the pre-medical courses and applied to medical school. Although I had pretty well forgotten my 3 years of high school Latin and had never studied Greek, I too survived medical school.

Physicians need to learn and remember an incredible number of medical terms in order to describe disorders and diseases. Accuracy in diagnosis is reflected in the precision of the terms employed.

Medical terminology becomes easier, I discovered, if you understand the origin of the words and know how complex terms are usually just an assembly of simpler components.

I found that learning the meaning of words in medicine has helped dispel my awe and fear of them. A command of medical terms is a form of power. Savor it!

Frederick Hecht, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Last Editorial Review: 6/4/2001 9:51:00 AM