Medical Terminology in Lay Terms (or Plain English)
Updated: Jan 30
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With the unprecedented advancement of technologies in all industries and professional fields, every profession has come to use its own technical or specialized language. Sharing such an “insider language” allows professionals to efficiently communicate with each other, and medicine is no exception. In fact, learning medical terminology requires almost as much effort and time as honing practical clinical skills.
On the other hand, every profession also has to learn how to communicate with “outsiders”: people from other professions and ordinary folks. This is especially vital for health care professionals, for whom effective communication is not simply a matter of outreach but an urgent and, at times, even life-and-death requirement.
Medical terms and phrases are complicated and may prevent correct understanding of health care information and medication instructions. Medical professionals should be able to rephrase such terms and explain difficult notions to their patients.
Most common medical terms have equivalents in lay language, which are important to know to help:
◈ Rephrase medical information using plain English;
◈ Interpret what patients say in medical jargon.
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Greek and Latin origins
Long before English became the lingua franca of science and medicine, with all the greatest medical discoveries having been published in English, Latin was the dominant language of medicine. Before the 3rd century, medical students also received instructions in Greek. In fact, both Greek and Latin shaped the conventions of medical as well as scientific writing for over 2,000 years.
Nowadays, almost all internationally recognized medical journals publish in the English language, which also dominates major scientific conferences and congresses. Just as Latin and Greek before, the contemporary language of communication among medical and health care professionals is English.
The same goes for medical terminology: Whereas before any new technical terms used to have classical Greek or Latin roots, the medical innovations and devices of our era are often composed of common English words (which may be etymologically rooted in other languages, including Greek and Latin, and may have been used in narrowly specialized fields but have entered the realm of general use some time ago).
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Arabic and French origins
In the 7th century, Arabic became another language of medical use, apart from Greek and Latin, owing to the extraordinary expansion of the Arab empire. Arab physicians, who largely benefited from the medical knowledge of Greeks, in turn, ensured its preservation and further contributed to its richness.
The Arabic words, which had entered English through Latin and French, included alcohol, alchemy, alkali, or nitrate. In fact, French was an invaluable intermediary between Greek/Latin and English, with numerous Greek- and Latin-rooted words having become the staple of the current English vocabulary: e.g., superior, inferior, male, female, face, gout, migraine, odor, ointment, pain, venom, acne, basis, chaos, character, criterion, dogma, horizon, stigma, asthma, trauma, etc.
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Greek terms mainly occur in clinical terminology, e.g., cardiology, nephropathy, gastritis, whereas Latin words make up most anatomical terms: e.g., cor, ren, or ventriculus. The reason Greek is such a great source for specialized terminology is its linguistic malleability, namely, its amazing suitability for building compound words.
So, when the rapid expansion of medical science during the last two centuries required a stock of new terms for the newly discovered conditions and diseases, as well as the new medical tools and devices, Greek words, often in their Latinized forms, became the way to go. In fact, almost a half of our medical terminology is less than one-century-old.
The table below shows how some Greek words for organs or parts of human body are associated with adjectives and nouns used in the names of common medical conditions and human organs:
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Such associations in medical terminology are called doublets. Most Greek and Latin-based terms have their equivalents (“doubles”) in lay language, e.g., search ➝ investigate, shot ➝ injection, heart attack ➝ myocardial infarction.
The doublet phenomenon can be observed through the association of adjective vs. noun roots. This particular linguistic feature is of a great importance in writing or translating information materials for lay readers.
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Medicine in lay (plain) terms
Here is a short glossary of common medical terms and their suggested equivalents, using the lay (plain) language. I have used the recommendations from the Plain English Campaign and the MHRA Report of the Committee on Safety of Medicines (CMS) Working Group on Patient Information.
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When a patient says…
Below is another brief list of common ways in which patients may describe their symptoms and the medical conditions such symptoms may point to:
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Always Read the Leaflet: Getting the Best Information with Every Medicine, from the Report of the Committee on Safety of Medicines Working Group on Patient Information, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, Melinda Letts, The Stationery Office, 2005.
Plain English Campaign 2001, How to write medical information in plain English, www.plainenglish.co.uk.
Various Aspects of Medical English Terminology, Božena Džuganová, Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia, from Towards Understanding Medical Translation and Interpreting, ed. Wioleta Karwacka, Gdansk University Press, Gdansk 2018.