Analyzing Medical Terms

The task of learning medical terminology seems overwhelming at first, but there is a simple trick to becoming more comfortable with the technical language of medicine. People who find scientific terms confusing and difficult to pronounce, spell, and remember usually feel more confident once they realize the logic of how terms are composed. A term such as hyponatremia is less forbidding once we recognize that it is composed of three common word elements: hypo- (below normal), natri- (sodium), and -emia (blood condition). Thus, hyponatremia is a deficiency of sodium in the blood. Those word elements appear over and over in many other medical terms: hypothermia, natri-uretic, anemia, and so on. Once you learn the meanings of hypo-, natri-, and -emia, you already have the tools at least to partially understand hundreds of other biomedical terms. In appendix C, you will find a lexicon of the 400 word elements most commonly footnoted in this book.

Scientific terms are typically composed of one or more of the following elements:

  • At least one root (stem) that bears the core meaning of the word. In cardiology, for example, the root is cardi-(heart). Many words have two or more roots. In cytochrome, the roots are cyt- (cell) and chrom- (color).
  • Combining vowels that are often inserted to join roots and make the word easier to pronounce. In cytochrome, for example, the first o is a combining vowel. Although o is the most common combining

18epo = after, related to + nym = name vowel, all vowels of the alphabet are used in this way, such as a in ligament, e in vitreous, the first i in spermicidal, u in ovulation, and y in tachycardia. Some words have no combining vowels. A combination of a root and combining vowel is called a combining form: for example, ost (bone) + e (a combining vowel) make the combining form oste-, as in osteology.

  • A prefix may be present to modify the core meaning of the word. For example, gastric (pertaining to the stomach or to the belly of a muscle) takes on a wide variety of new meanings when prefixes are added to it: epigastric (above the stomach), hypogastric (below the stomach), endogastric (within the stomach), and digastric (a muscle with two bellies).
  • A suffix may be added to the end of a word to modify its core meaning. For example, microscope, microscopy, microscopic, and microscopist have different meanings because of their suffixes alone. Often two or more suffixes, or a root and suffix, occur together so often that they are treated jointly as a compound suffix; for example, log (study) + y (process) form the compound suffix -logy (the study of).

To summarize these basic principles, consider the word gastroenterology, a branch of medicine dealing with the stomach and small intestine. It breaks down into: gastro/ entero/logy gastro = a combining form meaning "stomach" entero = a combining form meaning "small intestine" logy = a compound suffix meaning "the study of"

"Dissecting" words in this way and paying attention to the word-origin footnotes throughout this book will help make you more comfortable with the language of anatomy. Knowing how a word breaks down and knowing the meaning of its elements make it far easier to pronounce a word, spell it, and remember its definition. There are a few unfortunate exceptions, however. The path from original meaning to current usage has often become obscured by history (see insight 1.4). The foregoing approach also is no help with eponyms or acronyms—words composed of the first letter, or first few letters, of a series of words. For example, calmodulin, a calcium-binding protein found in many cells, is cobbled together from a few letters of the three words, calcium modulating protein.

Insight 1.4 Medical History

Obscure Word Origins

The literal translation of a word doesn't always provide great insight into its modern meaning. The history of language is full of twists

Saladin: Anatomy & I 1. Major Themes of I Text I I © The McGraw-Hill

Physiology: The Unity of Anatomy and Physiology Companies, 2003 Form and Function, Third Edition and turns that are fascinating in their own right and say much about the history of human culture, but they can create confusion for students.

For example, the amnion is a transparent sac that forms around the developing fetus. The word is derived from amnos, from the Greek for "lamb." From this origin, amnos came to mean a bowl for catching the blood of sacrificial lambs, and from there the word found its way into biomedical usage for the membrane that emerges (quite bloody) as part of the afterbirth. The acetabulum, the socket of the hip joint, literally means "vinegar cup." Apparently the hip socket reminded an anatomist of the little cups used to serve vinegar as a condiment on dining tables in ancient Rome. The word testicles literally means "little witnesses." The history of medical language has several amusing conjectures as to why this word was chosen to name the male gonads.

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