The Language Of Medicine


I often forget that my brain was heavily bombarded with tens of thousands of medical terms, because I have no use for about 95% of those words in my daily life. But there is a vast ocean of multisyllabic words swirling around in the depths of my memory which would make any logophile giddy with delight. Back when I was in grade school, I had already cultivated a strange fascination for long coils of letters, a fascination which became an advantage as I was able to spell difficult words with ease, and could edit my friends’ term papers fluidly.

Once I reached my college years, I immersed myself in the world of complex vocabulary by concentrating on the sciences. I thought the terminology used in chemistry, comparative anatomy, physiology, and microbiology was absolutely beautiful, and enjoyed learning it all. Even now, when I alight upon a scientific passage or book (a recent favorite was The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean), I almost get giddy with anticipation of what I am about to read. Though I appreciate the world of medical nomenclature and can pronounce the tongue-twisting jumbles of letters, I no longer have the same passion for them I once had.

I know that one of the reasons why I no longer adore words like cholelithiasis (gallstones) is because of my deep immersion in medical language for so long. I became tired of having to memorize massive amounts of information, and I realize there are esoteric medical terms taking up valuable real estate in my brain, terms which I will likely never use because they delve into subspecialties like hematologic oncology or cardiothoracic surgery, neither of which I discuss at length. I still remember most of the mnemonics which are a necessary part of the memorization process and am thankful for their existence. But there are only a few which stuck, the ones which have utility in my current practice of medicine, such as OOOTTAFAGVAH, SEXLAB, and “Some Lovers Try Positions That They Can’t Handle” (I will leave these undefined for those of you who like puzzles).

In some ways I guess I could say that I am bilingual, since medical speak is a completely different entity from regular, everyday speech. When my medical hat is on, I shift in to medical language effortlessly, and occasionally find it challenging to replace descriptive medical vocabulary with layperson terms. Usually the blank stare from a patient or friend is enough to jar me from my speech patterns and find more general words to describe a physiological process, a disease, or a treatment course. I suppose the science nerd in me will remain very much intact as a result of the vocabulary floating around in my noggin!

When Words Elude You


I have always been a decent writer, and have prided myself on having a substantial vocabulary. So when my mind completely draws a blank and can’t find a simple word which I am trying to remember, I become rather frustrated. I will stand there with a vacant expression on my face, sifting through the memory banks, hoping for some kind of trigger. I have become accustomed to the random brain fog moment, which is followed up about an hour later with the word innocently floating into my conscious mind, as if to say, “Here I am…looking for me?” For example, I couldn’t remember the word “cryptic” the other day, but it suddenly appeared after the situation in which I needed to the remember the word had passed. I was heating up a meal, and there it was, POP, in my head. What the hell? Where were you when I needed you?

Instead of struggling endlessly to find a word, I usually give up after less than a minute. It turns out that stubbornly trying to remember a word makes it more difficult to recall that word in the future, so I guess I am giving my brain a break. Perhaps I am also mellowing with age, sinking into a resigned state, and knowing that my noggin will have its misfirings every now and then.

I have made the delayed word recall which occurs into a bit of a game now so that the word sticks. When “cryptic” came back to me, I immediately thought of Tales From The Crypt so that the word would stick, sort of like a memory glue so that the synapses might fire correctly next time and give me the word on demand. It seems to work pretty well, so I will continue to do it.

Another thing which I do is to play a word game on the Lumosity website, in which I have to enter words based on a given word root. I figure this is a good exercise for any writer, and will keep me actively thinking about vocabulary. I will say, however, that I have stepped away somewhat from the scientific mode of writing which has been required of me when I write clinical papers. I love complex vocabulary, especially multi-syllabic words which have a way of twisting the tongues of most people. Yes, I am weird that way, a bit of a science nerd. These days, though, I am not writing for an audience of physicians or scientists, so the vocabulary I turn to is a bit more basic. After all, I am not trying to talk over people or blind them with science. I am trying to inform, educate, and communicate, so I want my work to be completely accessible and easy to understand.

Even with all this word training, I still feel like a complete idiot when my mind is desperately fishing for a word or name. It can be downright frustrating to give up on trying to find a word, and settling for a synonym instead. What’s even worse is when I can’t think of a word, and can only think of a phrase which describes what I am trying to say with that one, elusive word. In that situation, I redirect my writing so that I avoid the roadblock. However, if it happens when I am speaking with someone, I am sort of screwed!