The Language origins of medical terminology
Medical Terminology (ME 1110)
March 23, 2009
Medical terminology has a long and rich history that evolved in great measure from the Latin and Greek languages. “It is estimated that about three-fourths of our medical terminology is of Greek origin.”(Banay) “Latin accounts for the majority of root words in the English language.” (Fallon). We find that the “oldest written sources of western medicine are The Hippocratic writings from the 5th and 4th centuries BC; which covers all aspects of medicine at that time and contain numerous medical terms.”(Wulff) This was the beginning of the Greek era of the language of medicine, which lasted even after the Roman conquest, since the Romans, who had no similar medical tradition, imported Greek medicine. Most of the doctors practicing in the Roman Empire were Greek. The main reason for this is that the Greeks were the founders of rational medicine in the golden age of Greek civilization in the 5th century BC. The Hippocratic School and, later on, Galen formulated the theories which dominated medicine up to the beginning of the 18th century. The Hippocratic were the first to describe diseases based on observation, and the names given by them to many conditions are still used today. A second reason for the large number of Greek medical terms is that the Greek language lends itself easily to the building of compounds. When new terms were needed, with the rapid expansion of medical science during the last century, Greek words or Latin words with Greek endings were used to express the new ideas, conditions, or instruments. The new words follow the older models so closely that it is impossible to distinguish the two by their forms. The fact is that about one-half of our medical terminology is less than a century old. A third reason for using the classical roots is that they form an international language, easily understood by anyone familiar with the subject matter. The Greek terms came into the English language through the Latin. In adapting the Greek words the Romans used the Latin alphabet. As Romans conquered the then known world, Latin became the universal language of Italy and the provinces. Many centuries after the fall of Rome, Latin still ruled supreme. To this very day, Latin is the language of the Catholic Church, and during the formative period of the western European languages it was incorporated in every one of them. The Romance language, and especially French, is modern Latin, preserving most of the form and spirit of the ancient language. English is to some extent Germanic in form and part of its vocabulary is Germanic, but a considerable section is of Latin ancestry borrowed from the French. Most of the common roots of speech are Anglo-Saxon, but the moment we leave primitive life and advance to more civilized living, our words immediately become Latin. We walk, start, stop, breathe, sleep, wake, talk, live, and lie in Anglo-Saxon but we advance, retreat, approach, retire, inspire, confer, discuss, compare, refute, debate, perish, survive in Latin, and the predominant part of the vocabulary of business, commerce, finance, government, diplomacy, and the sciences is Latin. Greek medicine migrated to Rome at an early date, and many Latin terms crept into its terminology. Latin was the language of science up to the beginning of the 18th Century, so all medical texts were written in Latin. Under the influence of the great anatomical work of Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (1543), the terminology of anatomy is almost exclusively Latin. During the Renaissance period, the science of anatomy was begun. Many early anatomists were faculty members in Italian schools of medicine. These early anatomists assigned Latin names to structures that they discovered. This tradition has continued. Some names for conditions were retained from the teachings of Galen (A.D. 130-200), a Greek physician who...
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