The Amazing Language of Medicine: Understanding the Medical Terms and Their Backstories

William R. Phillips, MD, MPH

Fam Med. 2018;50(4):316-317.

DOI: 10.22454/FamMed.2018.526424

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Book Title: The Amazing Language of Medicine: Understanding the Medical Terms and Their Backstories

Book Author: Robert B. Taylor

Publication Information: Cham, Switzerland, Springer International Publishing, 2017, 238 pp., $49.99, softcover

What could be closer to the heart of family medicine than communication, context, and meaning? “Words, are, of course,” as Rudyard Kipling noted, “the most powerful drug used by mankind.”1

Leave it to a family physician generalist to bring together history, literature, classics, etymology, philology, geography, and the biomedical sciences to give us stories about the words we use in practice and patient care. Perhaps no family physician is better suited than Robert B. Taylor, MD, to create this quaint and curious volume of linguistic lore. A pioneer family medicine educator and author of over 30 books, he knows the craft of writing, appreciates our historical roots and understands the primacy of communication.

In his quest for the origins of common and not-so-common medical words, Dr Taylor roots around in history, myth, anecdote, and tales of medical discovery, from Achilles to Zika. Up-to-date entries include fascinoma, incidentaloma, chartoma and, very sadly, iPatient. The reader can browse with a generalist’s eye or search by special interest.

These backstories of word origin range from definitive to contested to questionable. The author brings the reader in on controversies and offers competing origin myths when the fog of time obscures the past.

The words we use in medicine come from classical Latin and Greek, of course, and from modern German, French, Portuguese, Japanese, and Arabic. They also come from languages as remote as Old English and Medieval French and from tongues as diverse Ghana (kwashiorkor), Polynesia (tattoo), Malay (to run amok), the Tupi of Brazil (ipecac), the Fore of Papua New Guinea (kuru), and the Quechua of the Andes (cocaine and quinine).

Diseases have been named, not just by their anatomy or pathology, but for ancient Greek gods, modern literary characters and the doctors, patients, and locations connected with their first description. Names of diseases and treatments come from astute clinicians, pioneering scientists, indigenous healers, and pharmaceutical industry ad men. Terms have been coined by scholars, scientists and healers—sometimes all in one historical figure.

You may know that placebo comes from the Latin book of Psalms used in the Office of the Dead. But who knew that alcohol comes from the Arabic eye shadow used by beauties of antiquity? Or that bezoar comes from the use of hair balls as cures for the plagues of ancient Persia? Isoniazid was named after competing drug companies drew research notes out of a hat.

As with accounts of patients and illnesses, each entry is an engaging narrative. Dr Taylor tells these stories to link us to our past—at times mythic, heroic, or embarrassing. The author believes understanding the background of the words we use can help improve our communication through understanding of connotation and context.

The text is generously enriched by an eclectic array of illustrations, most in color and all with helpful public domain citations. The author provides references for historical notes and offers general resources on the language and history of medicine.

This is not a reference work, a vocabulary builder, or a guide to medicalese as a second language. It is a treasury of notes and anecdotes, a companion to study and life in medicine. It is not meant to be read cover-to-cover, but to be kept by armchair or bedside and sampled fascinating bit by curious bit. It harkens back to the commonplace books kept by most readers and writers in slower and more thoughtful times.

The word entries feel like notes the author has jotted and lovingly curated over decades of personal reading, study, and practice. They reflect the curiosity of a generalist, not the pedantry of a lexicographer. The collection gives the reader a special peek into the intellectual and practice life of the author, such as one gets from perusing a friend’s bookshelf or LP collection.

Much attention is now focused on work-life balance in medicine. This book offers curious readers a resource for work-work balance by enriching their professional lives and deepening their sense of history, discovery and meaning.

Words are perhaps our most potent tools in diagnosis and treatment, teaching and learning, research and policy. Knowing their history can help us understand the paths medicine has traveled from ancient cult to current practice. Today, discourse is too often abbreviated by acronyms, defined by billing codes, and confined by electronic boilerplate. The Amazing Language of Medicine offers deeper appreciation of how practice has shaped the words we use and how our words can shape our visions of practice, scholarship, and healing.


1. Kipling R. Surgeons and the soul. Speech in: A Book of Words: Selections from Speeches and Addresses Delivered Between 1906 and 1927. London: Macmillan; 1928.

Lead Author

William R. Phillips, MD, MPH

Affiliations: University of Washington, Seattle, WA

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