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The Language of Medicine

My neurologist was saying  that his young children are learning French and are able to carry on a conversation in the language even though they have barely begun their elementary years. It made me wish that I had learned another foreign language. Yes, I studied Spanish for three years, but have long forgotten how to use it other than ask where the bathroom is or order a cold beer.  Honestly, sometimes the cold beer comes out as a bean beer because there is a big difference between frio and frijoles.

As I thought about it, I realize I have become somewhat bilingual, being able to converse in some basic medical language. There is a tendency in medicine to use words that we won’t understand, the theory might be that the indecipherable words keeps the medical folks as the authorities. It’s no wonder then that this second language I have been slowly learning the past few years is taking a while to catch in my brain and I am regularly consulting Google for a definition, much like I will use TranslateGoogle to understand foreign words.

I had my one month follow-up with the urologist who did my bladder Botox treatment and was first seen by one of his student doctors.  I can only imagine the look on my face when he declared the surgeon had found chronic cystitis.  He said, but of course you knew that, right? To which I reminded him I was knocked out for the surgery, I didn’t see the doctor afterwards and had no idea what he was talking about but that I would go home and Google it to learn more.  My comment didn’t register with him and he proceeded to use many more large medical terms, leaving me to again look at him with the blank stare and taking notes to translate later.  I even told him I hadn’t a clue what he was saying, but he didn’t pause to explain.  Obviously he had Aced the class on using medical language to make the process mystical and beyond the comprehension of the typical patient and I was supposed to be impressed.

As soon as I had the opportunity, I looked up chronic cystitis, figuring I had some types of hideous growths in my bladder, only to learn it was something much less glamorous – it means chronic UTI’s.  Now why didn’t he just say that in English rather than in Medicinese?

Here are some of my favorite MS  language examples – and I’ll tell you right now that MS doesn’t stand for mighty simple –

Paresthesia sounds a bit like something that would float parachute-like or is found under the Eiffel Tower, but its neither of those.  Paresthesia should be called what they are – phantom feelings created by nerves misfiring, such as pins and needles or tingling.   At the very least this problem should be given a name that is easily pronounced.

Hyperintensities, particularly in the brain’s white matter, is a scary medical diagnosis on an MRI report.  The term makes me think of minute dancing orbs, unable to hold still like they are ramped up on too much coffee and sugar. In reality it just means there are tiny white spots on our brain, and often mean nothing other than we are getting older. The only term more worrisome than hyperintensity in MRI reports for the uninitiated who don’t speak the medical language, might be UBO’s (unidentified bright objects). This finding might confirm that I had been visited by the mothership and hauled off to space against my will and my brain was injected with UBO’s.  The real translation for UBO’s is – heck if I know what that is, but it’s probably not going to hurt you.

Lesion is another ominous, foreign word because it sounds like a growth that needs to be removed where it really means an erosion or damaged area.  Panic is the first emotion most people will feel when they hear they have lesions on their brain, which conjures up images of growths or tumors.  Our MS lesions are more like potholes waiting to be patched with new myelin. If only there was a way to translate lesion into something less ominous that doesn’t sound like cancer.

Finally, I offer armamentarium as an example of a favorite word of neurologists. This fancy word must have been on their final board exam because I think every last neurologist who I have heard speak publicly uses armamentarium at some point in their talk.  For example, the doctor might say the introduction of the latest oral drug adds one more item to the armamentarium.  Now why can’t they just say it’s one more thing in their toolbox or bag of tricks? I have to wonder if those same doctors remember how to spell armamentarium.

I would love to know what foreign medical words you would add to my dictionary for an easier translation.

Wishing you well,


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • life well lived
    6 years ago

    My daughter had a hard time learning to speak which is common for kids with feeding tubes as babies. So we started getting and her brother to practice saying their respective medical diagnosis. The looks we got in restaurants were priceless as our 3 year old said “pulmonary atresia” and our 2 year old said “chronic lung disease.” Their inability to say them without cracking up into gales of toddler laughter quickly spread as people tried to pretend not to be listening in on the 2 very loud little kids.

    I got off easy. I just had to say “MS.”

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    That’s a great visual. I could never get my three year old to say her condition – immunothrombocytopeniapurpura… Thanks for the laugh.

  • JustsayN
    6 years ago

    OH Laura..I’m still laughing! LOL lol. It’s great to find humor in serious subjects. My MS don’t stand for “Mighty Simple” either. LOL. Thanks for your post.

  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Justsayn – do you have favorite terms you would want to translate into English? I’m glad you’re laughing with me. best, Laura

  • Kim Dolce moderator
    6 years ago


    My main gripe is that I use the correct medical terms when I talk to a new medical professional–and they use the vernacular back at me because they don’t believe I know what I’m talking about. For example, I told a urology nurse I’d had a cholecystectomy, and she said; “You mean you had your gallbladder removed?” “Yes,” I said, wanting to say something sarcastic like “I’m sorry, am I talking over your head? I’ll try to use simpler language.”

    Then I saw the urologist himself and spoke with him using correct medical terminology, and he stared at me, mouth agape, and asked: “Are you a nurse? You know your medical terms.” “Nope, just an informed patient who reads,” I told him.

    Sometimes I wonder why I even bothered to learn that stuff, lol!


  • Laura Kolaczkowski author
    6 years ago

    Perhaps there needs to be a Rosetta Stone course where we can earn a certificate in Medicinese,and once proficient we could practice by attending medical conventions.

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