Learning the language

A guide to medical terminology

Once I learned the principles of medical terminology, it helped every huge new word become less daunting, and learning medical language became fascinating and fun.


Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis: a lung disease caused by the inhalation of silica or quartz dust.

When I first started medical school, I knew I would be learning tons of new information. What I did not know was that I would be learning a whole new language entirely: Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia? Dysdiadochokinesia? Whoever came up with these words, I just want to talk, OK? Once I learned the principles of medical terminology, though, every huge new word became less daunting and learning medical language actually became fascinating and fun.

Like many things, it becomes easier the more you practice and the more associations you can make with each word. Below are some basic principles of medical terminology, including tips for correct pronunciation and some unique variants used in osteopathic medicine.

The purpose of knowing medical terminology

Why do we use all of these giant words in medicine? First, medical language allows health care professionals to be clear and concise. In a multicultural society with diverse languages and dialects, medical terminology allows for a unified approach to communicating pertinent information about patient care both in verbal and written communication.

Second, medical language is efficient when used correctly. It gives a defining name to entities that would otherwise require a lengthy description. Lastly, correct use and pronunciation of medical terminology can signal competence and instill confidence that you are well-trained and prepared to address clinical problems.

The sources behind medical terminology

Medical terminology is primarily made up of words taken from Greek and Latin. Root syllables are combined with prefixes and/or suffixes to form cohesive units of language. For example, take the term “cholecystectomy”:

chole – comes from the Greek word cholḗ, meaning “bile.”

cyst – comes from the Greek word kýstis, meaning “bag,” “pouch,” or “bladder.”

ectomy – comes from the Greek word ektomē, meaning “excision.”

While Greek and Latin are the primary sources, there are other foundational sources for the medical lexicon. They include eponyms, acronyms and modern language trends. Eponyms–names based on relevant individuals–are common, although we are gradually phasing them out. A well-known example is Atrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named for a professional baseball player who died from the disease.

Acronyms are also common and important although sometimes inefficient if all interested persons are not familiar with the same ones. The term “acronym” has roots in Greek itself; acro (high, end) and onyma (name). Although there are arguments in opposition to the use of acronyms, the reality is they are a core component of a functioning hospital. There are critical acronyms to know, and the list is quite extensive. PO, NPO, MRI, EMR, QD, BID, XR, SOB, ERCP, MRCP, ORIF and the list goes on.

I want to take a moment to reinforce one important acronym: BUN stands for Blood Urea Nitrogen and is correctly spoken as bee-you-en (B.U.N.). Not BUN like a hot dog bun. After making this mistake, my preceptor tactfully taught me that calling it BUN is the fastest way to convey incompetence in a hospital setting–I don’t want others to experience this as well!

Modern language also frequently makes an impression on medical dialect and depends on the region and generational convention. Trends in dialogue occur, but it is important to maintain a high standard of accuracy because intergenerational communication occurs frequently and must be clear, concise and efficient. A brand new intern might be reading the discharge summary of a seasoned attending or vice versa, and it is important that the message is understood by each for optimal patient care.

So, whether the patient’s “vibe is sus” (Gen-Z for general impression is suspicious) or the attending is actually Sir William Osler himself, seamless communication can be attainable when medical terminology is used correctly.

Mastering the pronunciations

There is a secret to pronouncing medical terms correctly–the key is knowing which syllable to emphasize and give the long vowel sound to. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • The last syllable is the ultima.
  • The second to last syllable is the penult.
  • The third to last syllable is the antepenult.

The basic rule in medical terminology pronunciation is to emphasize the antepenult. For example, “car” in cardiac is the antepenult and thus gets the emphasis.

Another great example is colonoscopy vs. colonoscope. Count three syllables from the end of the word to find the antepenult:


The third “o” gets the long vowel sound “ah” – “Colon-aw-scopy.”


The second “o” gets the long vowel – “Col-awn-owe-scope.”

As with any rule there are exceptions and technicalities, but for the most part the above holds true. Other terms that demonstrate this principle well are “aldosterone,” “tacrolimus” and “osteopathic.” Practice identifying the ultima, penult, and antepenult, and notice which one gets the long vowel sound. The more you practice speaking in medical terminology, the more accurate your language becomes … and the more concise, efficient and confident you will be when you begin your clinical years.

Language unique to osteopathic medicine

One last thing to keep in mind is that there are many terms unique to osteopathic medicine. Many are eponyms, such as Chapman’s points or Fryette’s laws, but others are terms used to describe osteopathic treatments or diagnoses such as somatic dysfunction.

Some are distinctly osteopathic terms, and some are traditional terms that are more commonly used in osteopathic practice. Somatic dysfunction, sphenobasilar synchondrosis dysfunction, innominate, tensegrity and hysteresis are among the many terms more commonly used among osteopathic physicians. A helpful comprehensive guide to osteopathic medical terminology is available here.

An essential skill

Understanding medical terminology is a skill central to efficient communication between health care providers. The more correct language you attain and incorporate into your vocabulary, the better you will be able to keep up with the fast pace of health care delivery and nuances of hospital communication.

Being able to communicate your assessment and plan with clear and accurate language can ultimately be the difference between life and death for a patient, so taking medical terminology seriously is of high importance. Practice using the correct terminology now and be sure to welcome criticism on the way you are using certain terms or acronyms. Pretty soon, you will be walking the walk and talking the talk of a doctor.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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