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Medical morphology

Medical terminology (bronchitis [brɔŋ.ˈχi.tɪs] infection of the airways, arthrose [ɑr.ˈtro.zə] degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, cerebro-vasculair accident [sɪ.rə.bro.vɑs.ky.lˈε:r #ɑk.si.ˈdεnt] CVA, stroke, orthopedisch chirurg orthopaedic surgeon, surgeon specialized in the musculoskeletal system) is a field in its own right, with a large terminological component. From a language system perspective, medical terminology can be seen as a mix of (mostly neo-classical) derivation and (mostly neo-classical) compounding, with a great number of internationalisms and jargon. Lay terms such as buikloop [ˈbʌyk.lop] belly run diarrhoea, hoofdpijn [ˈhof.pεin] head pain headache, kater [ˈka.tər] hangover (< catarrh < Greek katarrhein to down-flow) and hoge bloeddruk [ˈho.χə#ˈblu.drʏk] high blood-pressure hypertension are built according to standard mechanisms of word (or phrase) formation or belong to the realm of lexicography.


The language of medicine has an extensive vocabulary and a significant amount of jargon (Fortuine 2001). Words and phrases from the medical area are built with the standard mechanisms of derivation and compounding, but the building blocks are to a large extent of foreign origin, especially Latin and Greek, either directly or via French, German or English. That is, neo-classical word formation plays an important role here. There are hundreds of prefixes, suffixes and other bound forms that occur only or mostly in medical terminology; the following table gives a few examples.

Table 1
form meaning/use example
cerebro- bound form denoting "pertaining to the brain" (< cerebrum brain) cerebro-vasculair accident CVA, stroke
-isme suffix denoting "condition of" alcoholisme alcoholism
-itis suffix denoting "inflammation" or "infection" colitis inflammation of the colon or the large intestine
neuro- bound form denoting "pertaining to the nervous system or brain" neurology medical specialty dealing with disorders of the nervous system
-oom suffix denoting "abnormal growth" astrocytoom astrocytoma, cancer of the brain originating in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes
-ose suffix denoting "abnormal process or disease state, usually chronic" necrose necrosis, death of body tissue, gangreen
vasculair adjective denoting "vascular", "pertaining to the blood vessels" cerebro-vasculair accident CVA, stroke
Frequent long names and terms will often be shortened by common means such as abbreviation and clipping: a sectio caesarea caeserean section (lay term: keizersnede emperor cut) will become sectio, diabetes mellitus urine sweet (lay term: suikerziekte sugar illness) is also known as diabetes, DM, or suiker, and hypoglycemie hypoglycemia, abnormally diminished content of glucose in the blood may be referred to as hypo.

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Van Everdingen and Van den Eerenbeemt (2012: XIX) note that there are actually (at least) two types or levels of medical language in Dutch, one that sticks to the classical forms, including aspects such as form of the suffixes and stress pattern (e.g. displasia [dɪs.ˈpla.si.ja] malformation) and another one in which (partial) adaptation to the Dutch language system has taken place (e.g. displasie [dɪs.pla.ˈsi])'.

The language of the medical professions in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium is not exactly the same as that of the Netherlands, which is due, at least in part, to the fact that higher education in Belgium used to be francophone. For example, what is known in the Netherlands as a fysiotherapeut physiotherapist is usually called kinesist in Belgium, and whereas paraplegie paraplegia is a common term in Belgium, the Netherlands more often uses dwarslaesie.

Wikipedia offers a huge list of the building blocks of medical language of the western world. Note that the pronunciation of many elements is different in different languages.

  • Everdingen, J.J.E. van & Eerenbeemt, A.M.M. van den2012Pinkhof Geneeskundig woordenboekBohn Stafleu Van Loghum
  • Fortuine, Robert2001The words of medicine: sources, meanings, and delightsCharles C. Thomas