Why Do Doctors Use so Much Latin?

If you listen to doctors talk (or if you’re just looking up stuff related to medicine/your physical health), you’re likely going to run into a lot of Latin and Greek. Even with only passing knowledge of Latin or Greek, you’ll probably start picking up prefixes and suffixes when getting a diagnosis or something. So, why do doctors use so much Latin? You might also hear weird acronyms around hospitals too. We’ll touch on them as well.

Is Latin Special?

There are practical reasons to use Latin terms—not just in medicine but also throughout other academic disciplines. But to hear some academics talk about those reasons, it comes off as… Well it comes off even snobbier than you might have thought. Here’s an excerpt from a medical research paper defending the use of Latin in the field:

“Indeed, the use of correct Latin terms reflects the author’s excellence and scholarly accomplishments.”

Honestly, that alone might be justification to just use a not-dead language in science. 

When Latin effectively died, it split off into the Romance languages; French, Spanish, Iralitan, Portuguese, and Romanian. The death of Latin was hugely important to its utility for academics—particularly the sciences where things have to be classified. Latin, now a dead language, does not change. Think about how quickly language changes, you only have to spend a couple minutes on social media or talk with people even a couple years younger than you for a lot of terms to just stop making any kind of sense to you. 

Since Latin is no longer spoken by people daily, words will always mean what they meant back when they were first used. For example, the scientific name for a grizzly bear is Ursus arctos horribilis, and that will always refer to the grizzly bear. Ursus will also always refer to some kind of bear. This will be helpful for scientists if, for some reason, people start using “bear” to mean literally anything else. The same applies to medical diagnoses, for example you’ve probably been told you have some kind of “-itis” before. That suffix means “inflamed,” which can immediately help narrow down treatment options. 

Distancing

More specific to the medical profession is linguistic distancing. Academics are well-known for using lots of passive voice, and it’s no different between medical professionals and their patients. Big picture, distancing your language is the difference between “I made a mistake” and “a mistake occurred.” 

The phenomenon is well-documented, as well as its detrimental effects on the doctor-patient relationship. It does, however, also serve a functional purpose. Medical professionals see a lot of stuff. Distanced language is often used to detach ourselves emotionally from what we’re talking about; medicine is no different. The use of Latin in the medical profession is just one of the ways one might distance themselves. It’s just less emotionally taxing to say “thrombosis” than “your blood is becoming a solid mass in your leg and now it might rot off.” 

But distanced language in medicine is a lot more nuanced than just “using Latin or Greek” abstracts things. Distanced language in medicine has also been critiqued for making the patient a passive observer to their own care. Doctors “get” your history, “order” tests, and “do” procedures to you. It’s easier for a doctor to say they “lost a case” than it is to say they “lost a patient.” While an obviously powerful defense mechanism, it’s also why much ink has been spilled on how medical professionals speak to and about their patients. 

All Those Abbreviations

Sometimes it seems like doctors and pharmacists have their own kind of text-speak. You might see something like PO, short for the Latin per os, which means “by mouth.” Rx is an abbreviation for the Latin recipere, which means “to take.” Some are English abbreviations though, like QNS just meaning “quantity not sufficient” or R/O meaning “rule out.” So when it comes to the abbreviations that end up being handed to you or your pharmacist, oops?

This is where people will start taking issue with the use of Latin in medicine. Sure, it’s gatekeep-y and some are snobby about it, but what professionals talk about between professionals is kind of whatever as long as they understand it. 

But Latin abbreviations can lead to… issues at the local pharmacist. A prescription might say “1 QD,” which means “1 tablet daily,” but can be misread easily as “1 QiD,” which means “1 tablet 4 times per day.” Yes, this has happened. Issues with Latin abbreviations, combined with the pop-culture meme of doctors having garbage handwriting is a pretty well-documented problem when it comes to patients taking their meds. But we suppose that’s not all the fault of Latin. 


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