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The Specific Language of Medicine

Learning medicine is like learning a foreign language. Clindamycin, Mycoplasmas, Otitis Media… All these words have no meaning until you give them one. For most of medicine, this foreign language you are learning is Latin. Almost all medical terminology – certainly anatomical and pathogenic terms – has roots in Latin. The big exception to the rule is drug naming.

When it comes to giving medication, it seems like their naming convention is random. However, after giving it some thought, drug names are no different from the random nature of human names. Take the example of the United States 43rd president.

If I originally say Bush – you may have images of George Bush, a burning bush, pubic hair, thick forests. However, if I add the first name George Bush, there is more information available. You now know I am referring to an American president. To further differentiate between George Bush Sr and Jr, I can add in the middle name so you now know I am referring to George W. Bush.

The key piece of information that was the “w” in his name. It helped differentiate two presidents and provide specificity. To further shorten down this whole process, I can just refer to George W. Bush as “dubya.” In one short word, I created a unique name that has low ambiguity.

Much in the same way, drugs get their hard to memorize names in a random process. We go from antibiotics > beta lactam > cephalosporins > third generation > “drug name.” The final drug name seems arbitrary but it is only through these random words that highly specific information can be given. Only by creating these unique words is there a 1:1 term to definition, where every term describes only one thing.

So even though the random medical jargon – of anatomy, physiology, pathogens, drugs, treatments – is incomprehendable to the general public. Amongst physicians, this highly esoteric language provides painstakingly precise information, that makes our communication amongst health care workers, highly effective.

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  1. raz
    raz November 20, 2008

    I am really interested in finding a meaning underneath the randomness of drugs name…and i found out that in many cases you can find a reason why that drug is so named…for example…do u know why paracetamole, or viagra, or aspirin are so named? it is really interesting!

  2. medaholic
    medaholic November 20, 2008

    I don’t know the story behind these names, but I assume those are trade names. The scientific names seem to be really random though.

  3. Bennie G. Ross
    Bennie G. Ross July 16, 2012

    may be they are named over their constituents or maybe on their effect…

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