From Hippocrates to Hypoglycemia: Demystifying Medical Terminology – Part II
Check out Part I of this article in case you missed it last week.
By learning the etymology of this kind of medical terminology, the translator has the great advantage that it is fairly universal and used in many other languages, particularly Romance languages. It is also useful to take into account the singular and plural forms, although do not be surprised if English-speaking doctors simply add their beloved “s” on the end of a word to form plurals, a practice that is now widely considered acceptable or even standard grammar in many cases.
Be aware of your English target audience, too. We Brits and others can be very fond of retaining the “ae” found in Greek roots (haemo: of blood), whereas Americans prefer the phonetically logical “e” (hemo). Remember also: oea → ea (U.S.). Very broadly speaking, some common plural endings for medical expressions follow these patterns. For example:
- -us → -i (e.g., bronchus → bronchi) (L.)
- -is → -es (e.g., diagnosis → diagnoses) (L.)
- -um → -a (e.g., ovum → ova) (L.)
- -ex → -ice (e.g., cortex → cortices) (L.)
- -a → -ae (e.g., bursa → bursae) (L.)
- -a → -ata (e.g., stoma → stomata) (Gr.)
Abbreviations in Medical Shorthand
There is one kind of text for which you should perhaps multiply your fees exponentially—doctors’ shorthand written notes, such as prescriptions. It remains a mystery to all humanity why physicians in all cultures and languages have handwriting that looks as if a drunken spider has fallen into an inkpot and crawled across the paper. To compound this issue, they also use Latin (though they often do so universally in different languages, which is clearly an advantage to the translator). As if this were not enough, they write in shorthand. First, then, you must decipher the actual symbols scrawled across the page into humanly recognizable characters. (If you are stumped, try asking those who are experts—anyone working in a pharmacy—to assist in cracking these hieroglyphs). The next step is to learn what some of these abbreviations mean. Below are a few common examples used in prescriptions.
- a.c. – ante cibum – before meals
- q.c. – quaque die – once a day
- q.A.M. – Quaque die Ante Meridiem – every day in the morning
- b.i.d/t.i.d/q.i.d – bis/ter/quater in die – two/three/four times a day
- You may also see something like “1 – 0 – 1” to indicate that the prescribed pill/medicine is to be taken with one dose in the morning or at breakfast, none at midday, and once at dinner or before going to bed.
- p.o. – per orim – by mouth (p.r. = per rectum, p.v. = per vagina)
In English, abbreviations may be used for days, weeks, months, and years (e.g., 2 w, which may also be written 2/52, or 3 m = 3/12). Then there are common English shorthand abbreviations that doctors may use to describe symptoms, for example. Here are some of the most important or common ones:
- Adv: advised
- BP: blood pressure
- CNS: central nervous system
- C/O: complains of
- CVS: cardiovascular system
- GIS: gastrointestinal system
- LLQ: left lower quadrant (as seen from patient’s point of view)
- MH: medical history
- NAD: nothing abnormal detected
- O/E: on examination
- p. reg.: regular (normal) pulse
- RUQ: right upper quadrant (of abdomen, sometimes written RUQ ABD = right upper quadrant of abdomen)
- RS: respiratory system
- T 90 F: temperature 90 Fahrenheit
- ∆: diagnosis
To indicate that a symptom is present, a physician may use the symbol “+” and “-” if it is not present. To indicate the symptom’s degree of severity, a physician may simply add more (“++” = significant; “+++” = severe).
So, let’s imagine our patient is being examined by a physician. The exchange might sound something like this:
Patient: “I fell on my backside about three days ago and it still hurts a little. I…er…I think there’s some blood in my poop. And yesterday my belly hurt a little right here.”
Physician: “Have you or your family had any serious stomach problems before?”
Patient: “Not that I know of.”
Physician: “Do you feel any itching in the area of your backside?”
Physician: “Eaten anything unusual lately?”
Patient: “Well, I guess I left those prawns out of the freezer a little too long…”
Physician: “Okay, I think we should take a look at you and check it out.”
After the examination, the doctor writes (scrawls):
c/o: Had a fall 3 d ago. + pr bleeding, not much. No MH reported. Pain in LLQ ABD. Food poisoning?
o/e: p 80 reg. BP 95/70. Small external pile. Otherwise pr normal. T 98 F (po). ABD NAD. ∆ Hemorrhoids. Adv cool bath, topical steroid.
The physician’s conclusion is that any possible food poisoning has now abated (temperature and abdomen now normal), and that the anal discomfort and bleeding is due to mild hemorrhoids and not to the fall. A skin cream is prescribed.
Nothing to Fear
This article is only intended as a starter to spark interest in medical translations primarily through etymology. As translators, we should not fear vocabulary that at first sight seems beyond us. The information provided here is far from authoritative or comprehensive, since it covers only a small facet of an enormous subject. Nor is the etymological approach foolproof. There may well be confusing expressions such as cerebellum/cerebrum, brachy/brachi(o), and cardiac/cardia. Reliable references should be used, although Wikipedia can prove useful in providing general information. In any case, I hope that you now have a better idea of how to go about tackling this particular kind of medical lexis wherever it may appear in your specializations. And I hope you will now feel less intimidated when you visit your doctor, as you will have some inkling as to what he or she is talking about!
(Note: The Wikipedia links listed below are useful learning tools, but only as a starting point in your research. Wikipedia’s reliability as a reference is questionable.)
Regulations for Medical Abbreviations
United Kingdom Department for Work and Pensions – A-Z of Common Abbreviations
U.S. National Institutes of Health – Glossary of Clinical Trial Terms
Wikipedia List of Surgical Procedures
Wikipedia List of Medical Roots, Suffixes, and Prefixes
Wikipedia List of Abbreviations Used in Medical Prescriptions
Answers to Etymological Quizzes
erythrocyte: red blood cell
glucopenia: low glucose count (also: hypo+glyc+emia = low+sugar+blood condition)
myalgia: muscle pain
rhinorrhea: a runny nose
rhinoplasty: a nose job (!)
hepatology: the study of the liver (and its surroundings)
gastrostomy: a surgical opening to the stomach
nephritis: inflammation of the kidney (nephrons)
syndactyly: condition with fused/webbed fingers/toes
angioma: tumors deriving from/around vessels
thyroidectomy: removal of part or all of the thyroid
abdominocentesis: puncturing of the belly to extract fluid (e.g., for analysis)
Severe nosebleed: rhinorragia
White blood cell deficiency/low count: leukocytopenia (also leucopenia)
High (blood) sugar: hyperglycemia
Disease of veins or arteries: angiopathy
Skin inflammation: dermatitis
Incision into windpipe: tracheotomy (If a “little mouth” is opened to connect the windpipe to the outside, this should be a tracheostomy in etymological terms.)
Of the heart muscle: myocardiac
Short fingers or toes: brachydactyly
A tumor of glandular origin: adenoma
Bone-cutting operation: osteotomy
Removal of a gland: adenectomy
Puncturing the chest to remove fluid: thoracentesis (intra-pulmonary)
Check out Part I of this article in case you missed it last week.
This article was originally published in The ATA Chronicle (May 2012), the monthly magazine of the American Translators Association (www.atanet.org).
Gary Smith translates from Spanish->English and Catalan->English. A British native, he has lived in Spain for 20 years. He also spent a year in France, where he translated documents at a research center. He is from a scientific and technical background, though today he also works with mercantile and labour law, and has experience with environmental texts, economics and the food industry. He is vice-president of the Valencia Region Association of Translators and Interpreters (Xarxativ), and a member of the Spanish Association of Translators, Copyeditors, and Interpreters (ASETRAD), Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET), and the American Translators’ Association (ATA). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.