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Medical jargon: Lesions in the LanguageBy Alfred D. Berger

A medical student I know reported that a patient was sweating heavily. She was corrected sharply – her clinical instructor insisted she write “diaphoresing profusely.” She was well on her way to becoming a doctor. What doctors do to English can make an editor weep.

Never mind that there’s no such verb as diaphorese. Even if it were correct, what combination of stuffed shirt and tin ear would prefer such polysyllabic gobbledygook to real words?

Remember what that master of the language, Winston Churchill, kept hammering home: the best in English have one syllable, and their roots are Anglo-Saxon. Better a high blood level than an elevated one.

Discussing the awkwardness of medical writing four years ago, physician-novelist Michael Crichton wrote, “The usual explanation of humanists is that scientists are illiterate, or only slightly acquainted with English prose. We can reject this as spiteful”.

Can we? Pre-med students are taking more and more technical courses and pass up many chances to study English. Once in medical school there’s no chance at all.

To this faulty background add a natural desire to pick up the lingo of the big guys – the residents and faculty. Throw in a certain amount of lazinessit’s easier to use an all-purpose buzzword like “procedure” than to select a more precise word, such as test, operation, method, or technique. Add a pinch of pomposity – it sounds grander to “perform” than just to do. Stir well, and out pours medical jargon.

Why else would doctors, when they want to talk about people highly likely to get diabetes, refer to them by so grotesque an expression as “individuals at high risk for diabetes?” Anyone who thinks “at high risk” is acceptable English needs to take high school grammar over again, this time paying attention. Oh, well, at least they’re one-syllable words.

Why else would they use “localize” when they mean locate, or find, or spot? Localizing a lesion doesn’t mean finding out exactly where it is; it means keeping it from moving or spreading. Another favorite “ize” word is “visualize,” which of course means to see in one’s mind’s eye, not to make visible on a cathode-ray tube or film.

A good deal of the verbal abuse, of course, is a conscious effort to use an arcane vocabulary nonprofessionals won’t understand. This makes the users feel wiser and more learned than the non-users and also lets them tall( over the heads of the uninitiated, like parents spelling words out so the children won’t understand.

The technique isn’t new. When I was much younger, a street pitchman who called himself The Mighty Atom used to work our neighborhood. Part of his act was a medical routine. “You go to a doctor and tell him your joints are inflamed. He tells you you have arthritis and charges you $5. Know what arthritis means? Inflamed joints.” He knew.

There’s no more excuse today for such usages as hepatocytes for liver cells, which takes the same space in print and is a syllable shorter in speech – and infinitely easier to understand. And renal may be shorter than lddney, but it’s clearly stuffier.

Among minor irritations are the euphemisms. Laboratory animals never seem to get killed, they’re “sacrificed.” To what god, I often wonder. Studies are never paid fOr, they’re “funded.” Sounds less crass to some writers, presumably. Although dictionaries may have given in, fund is still a better noun than it is a verb.

Misplaced snobbery is another minor annoyance. Such spelling as orthopedic for orthopedic – which has not been correct on these shores since Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 – seems pointless. It’s curious that some orthopods cling to this archaic diphthongery, but pediatricians don’t. Can it be that youth has rubbed off on one group, and orthodoxy on the other?

The worst thing about medical jargon is that it’s contagious. The first thing an editor has to teach a beginning science writer is that it’s important to know what all the technical terms mean, including those that are mere jargon – but that doesn’t mean it’s all right to use them.

Now, if only we could teach that to doctors.

The author is the managing editor of Medical World News.