Suggestion: Stop Using Latin Names of Biological and Medical Terms

In the English-speaking world, we often see the Latin or Latin-derived name of a biological or medical entity as the most formal or correct term. This goes from conditions, like folliculitis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to anatomical structures, like humerus or serratus anterior, to binomial nomenclature, like Felis catus or Homo sapiens sapiens. What I’m suggesting is that we drop that. Even academically. But at least to lesser and possibly more realistic extents, definitely.

There’s several reasons for this, generally relating to raising the accessibility of levels of medical and biological literacy and understanding.

What does one actually accomplish when they choose to use a Latin term for what can be accomplished with English, when they say “humerus” instead of “upper arm bone”? In this case, there’s the savings of one syllable (but oftentimes the Latin doesn’t even accomplish that or fares worse). Someone versed in English could figure out what “upper arm bone” probably refers to, but “humerus” requires more memorizational effort. If you took a high school biology class, chances are there were several sessions where all you were doing was memorizing the formal biological terminology for many entities the English language was definitely powerful enough to describe. MIT’s introductory biology class, to its credit, makes a commendable effort in trying to weed out as much of necessary memorization as possible and focusing on concepts and connecting content, but one could definitely still feel the effects of the communicational encumbering of Latin-derived terms. What if biology didn’t involve the time and mental effort spent learning another set of names for entities in a language that should be dead, and was able to jump to the concepts and ideas, described in terms of a formalized set of English names for biological and medical entities?

Here’s what the Latin does accomplish. It makes it harder to learn biology, providing artificial hurdles on the path to knowledge. It makes it harder to understand one’s medical situation, which could at times be something one wants to understand very fast. At the worst, Latin terms are used by someone to demonstrate (or give the pretense of) how intellectual they are. Obfuscation is the shield of choice for bullshit, and the degree of implementation of the obfuscatory nature of Latin terminology in a field is the degree of ease with which folks without any idea of what’s going on can deceive those seeking information.

But what about terms that have a name in Latin but no name in English?

Certainly a language of the modern day shouldn’t be less capable of expression than a language of antiquity. In fact, the Latin names for many newly discovered entities are totally-not-Latin terms pretentiously twisted to sound Latin. If it’s okay to make up Latin, certainly it’s okay to make a new English term for new ideas. But now the term is formed with English word parts, so anyone acquainted with the English language can often figure out what something means.

But what about how Latin provides a common language for communication among scientists from different countries?

Great, so now everybody needs to learn another set of terms. But doesn’t that make things fair? For one, not a good reason to compensate for the barrier to knowledge. But further, it makes things some level of fair for the Eurocentric world in which Latin could fairly be called the parent of all languages, to which Latin is much closer to what one’s used to than those whose native tongues are not descended from Latin.

We humans are all biological structures. We deserve that the knowledge to understanding our own bodies and functions be presented to us in a fashion not artificially complexified. In the English speaking world, where we’ve already learned English (good grief?), we should communicate these concepts with each other in English terms, not in a different tongue that may sound cooler but adds no insight to the subject matter. One doesn’t become more knowledgeable or enlightened when they learn the word for this is an odontoma.

Here’s what I will try to do. I will try to phase out Latin-derived terms from my vocabulary when speaking about health. Like any effort towards language reform, this is going to be hard and I’m probably going to often still use Latin terms without realizing it, but I’ll try to keep an ear out. I will try to use terms like “flesh-eating disease” instead of “necrotizing fasciitis” (as much as that has become one of my favorite gnarly conditions to reference), where the nature of the concept being described is more evident to a standard English speaker. Additionally, I’ll try to find English descriptions fit for medical terms that don’t seem to have an English descriptor yet. Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva? How about progressive bone transformation? If necessary, I could mention what a concept’s formal medical term is for reference. I will also try to encourage others to participate in an effort to help demystify, make less scary, and make more accessible biological and medical terms, because understanding ourselves is the worst place to have fun making things harder.


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