The Origins of Medical Terminology

Medical terminology

Contemporary medical terminology has its roots in different languages and can be so complicated that many universities offer courses in it.

Greek was at the heart of much of the terms we know today, though as Greek influence in the world waned, many texts and terms were translated into Latin, giving us the medical terminology we know today. That said, many Greek terms remain, such as anaesthesia (from anaisthesis meaning loss of sensation), scoliosis (from skolios meaning crooked or curve and –osis meaning condition) and epidermis (from epi meaning upon and dermis meaning skin, hence the outer layer of skin). Arabic-speaking scholars also contributed to medical language but little remains of these words as they too were translated into Latin. Some modern medical language has mixed origins, such as hypertension (hyper from Greek meaning over and tension from Latin) or neonatal (neo from Greek meaning new and natal from Latin meaning born).

Caution in Translation

For translators, it is vital to know who the target audience for the text will be. Unlike many industries, there is a big difference in the vocabulary used for and by patients compared with that used for and by medical professionals. For example, a patient may visit their doctor complaining of being “bunged up” but the GP would most likely write in their notes “constipated”. Another patient might be diagnosed officially as having hypertension but would have this explained to them as high blood pressure. Similarly, in French, the GP might write in their notes that their patient was suffering from a “cépahalée” (headache) whereas the patient has told them they have a “mal de tête” (sore head).
As with all translations, context is key and knowing the target audience for the translation can make all the difference when choosing terminology and phraseology. It tells the translator whether “gastroenteritis” is the appropriate term or if “stomach bug” would be better.

Accuracy in Transcription

In many ways, a medical transcription can be even more precarious. If a transcriber doesn’t have expert knowledge of the terminology used in diagnosis, the effects can be disastrous.
For instance, if a hospital received notes that referred to a patient having a ‘flea bite, left leg’, they would prepare a very different treatment to the one they would have considered if they knew the actual problem was ‘phlebitis on left leg’ (an inflammation of the veins).

These are more than just clerical errors; they will have an impact on the patient’s treatment and potentially even their life. By choosing a transcriber with a thorough understanding of the terminology being used, the most appropriate treatment can be chosen.

Whether you are translating or transcribing texts containing medical terminology a qualified, mother tongue translator, who specialises in medical translations, will make the right choice for your text. To get a quote for your next medical translation or transcription project, call us on +44 1727 862722 or email us at


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