Blogs and writing

The language of medicine

Posted on November 17, 2013 at 5:55 AM

Last week I lived the dream. A visit to the library doesn’t sound like much of a dream, but I was off to lay my hands on William Harvey’s original text on the circulation (Ref 1). The importance of this book, marking the dawn of clinical science, had inflated in size in my mind’s eye to that of a mighty tome. In reality it is tiny, like the pocket sized reference books I kept in my white coat pocket as a junior doctor. The librarian warned me that the book was badly foxed, but the discolouration of ageing was not the reason I found it difficult to read – it is, of course, written in Latin. Fortunately, she had the good sense to leave me a copy of the English translation published a few years later.

As a registrar I worked with an academic who devoted his life to anglicising anatomical nomenclature. So, atria became atriums. “We don’t wait for the croci to bloom in spring, do we?” was a typical challenge. The fossa ovalis became the oval fossa (but why not the oval ditch?). It was a bold effort, but one that has (so far) largely failed.

So it’s hardly surprising that Latin is still part of the everyday lexicon of medicine. I occasionally see ‘discharge mané’ written in the notes. (The acute accent presumably to distinguish the Latin for morning from the hair on a horses neck).

Every profession has it’s jargon and I can see how discussions between doctors must seem arcane to the outsider. My own job involves regular meetings with clinical geneticists. It’s like talking with a group of Norwegians - they are perfectly capable of speaking excellent English but when they speak amongst themselves, the language is impenetrable.

But there is a new language of medicine that many doctors struggle to comprehend - management speak. Woe betide those who cannot translate it, you might miss the vital meeting to discuss allocation of junior medical staff, hidden in the email entitled; ‘Human resources: blue sky thinking and horizon scanning event’. In the management speak world we ‘revisit’ places we have never been to. We are given ‘toolkits’ to ‘drill down’ in ‘workshops’ but there isn’t a spanner to be seen. Undefined acronyms (UNAC’s) are liberally sprinkled into the mix. The end result is an indecipherable word salad of mixed metaphors and gobbledygook that is rarely challenged. I once introduced myself at a management meeting as ‘director of cardiovascular enablement and excellence’. Some nodded sagely, no one stopped to ask what on earth I was talking about.

In Harvey’s day Latin was the international language of medicine, an aid to universal communication. Management speak appears the polar opposite. Despite it’s comic absurdity it represents a pernicious and conceited attempt to manufacture a technical lexicon by those with no specific skills. Or am I just picking the low hanging fruit?


1. Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, William Harvey,1628, Frankfurt (see it for yourself at

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