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Where did medical terminology come from?
Medical terminology is a vast subject. The terminology used in the medical profession has evolved greatly from the Latin and Greek languages. During the Renaissance period, the science of anatomy was begun. Many early anatomists were faculty members in Italian schools of medicine and gave Latin names to structures and ailments they discovered. Etymologically, it’s no surprise then that Latin accounts for most root words in the English language.

Picture Credit:Hippocrates” by Raed Mansour is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Some names for conditions have been retained from the teachings of Galen[1] (129–216 AD), a Greek physician who wrote texts on medicine in the latter part of his life. These remained influential for almost 1,500 years. Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, neurology, philosophy, and logic.

Many of the names of diseases and conditions first used by Galen are still in use today, which is why the second most common source of medical root words is the Greek language. Galen’s understanding of anatomy and medicine was principally influenced by the then-current theory of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, as first advanced by the author of On the Nature of Man in the Hippocratic Corpus.[2]/[3]

The earliest known glossaries of medical terms were discovered on Egyptian papyrus authored around 1600 BC[4]. Other precursors to modern medical dictionaries include lists of terms compiled from the Hippocratic Corpus in the first century AD[5].

For an example of medical etymology, the word ‘diabetes’ is borrowed from the Greek word meaning a siphon. Most medical terms are derived from Latin or Greek roots. In the 2nd century AD, the Greek physician Aretaeus the Cappadocian gave the name to this condition[6].

For medical professionals, the object of medical terminology is to create a standardised language that allows them to communicate more effectively and encourage reporting. It helps workers save time by ensuring that they do not have to describe in plain English complicated medical issues and leaves them time to concentrate on patient care.

Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes[7]
Medical terminology has quite regular morphology, the same prefixes and suffixes being used to add meanings to different roots.[8] These word components are assembled like building blocks to create a vast vocabulary. Greeks are regarded as the founders of rational medicine, and medical terms are primarily derived from Greek and Latin. In forming or understanding a word root, one needs a basic comprehension of the terms and the source language.

Medical terminology often uses words created using prefixes and suffixes in Latin and Ancient Greek. In medicine, their meanings, and their etymology, are informed by the language of origin. Prefixes and suffixes, primarily in Greek—but also in Latin, have a droppable -o-.

  • Prefix: When included, the prefix appears at the start of a medical term before a combining form of a word root and usually indicates a location, time, number, direction, type, quality, quantity or status of the word root.
  • Root: The root gives a term its essential meaning. Most medical terms contain at least one root. When a prefix is absent, the medical term begins with a root.
  • Suffix: The suffix appears at the end of a medical term after a combining form of a word root and adds to the meaning of the word root. It may indicate a speciality (expertise), test, procedure, function, condition, disease, disorder, or status. Otherwise, it may simply define whether the word is a noun, verb, or adjective.
  • Combining vowel: A combining vowel (usually the letter ‘o’) may be added between word parts to assist in pronunciation.

Breaking a word down into its component parts should help laypersons determine the meaning of an unfamiliar term. For example, hypothermia has the prefix hypo (meaning below normal), the root therm (heat or warmth), and the suffix -ia (condition).[9]

Prefix, root, and suffix for hypothermia.

The root of a term often refers to an organtissue, or condition. For example, in the condition known as hypertension, the prefix “hyper-” means “high” or “over”, and the root word “tension” refers to pressure, so “hypertension” refers to abnormally high blood pressure[10].

The roots, prefixes and suffixes are often derived from Greek or Latin and often is quite dissimilar from their English-language variants.[11] This regular morphology means that once a reasonable number of morphemes are learnt, it becomes relatively easy to understand very precise terms assembled from them. Much medical language is anatomical terminology, concerning itself with the names of various parts of the body.

According to language, medical roots generally go together: Greek prefixes go with Greek suffixes and Latin prefixes with Latin suffixes. Although it is technically considered acceptable to create hybrid words, it is strongly preferred not to mix different lingual roots. Examples of well-accepted medical words that do mix lingual roots are neonatology and quadriplegia.

  • Prefixes do not normally require further modification to be added to a word root because a prefix normally ends in a vowel or a vowel sound, although in some cases, they may assimilate slightly, and an in- may change to im- or syn- to sym-.
  • Suffixes are attached to the end of a word root to add meaning – such as condition, disease process, or procedure.

In the process of creating medical terminology, certain rules of language apply. These rules are part of language mechanics called linguistics. The word-root is developed to include a vowel sound following the term to add a smoothing action to the word’s sound when applying a suffix. The result is the formation of a new term with a vowel attached (word root + vowel) called a combining form. In English, the most common vowel used in the formation of the combining form is the letter -o- added to the word root. For example, if there is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, this would be written as gastro- and enter- plus -itis, gastroenteritis.

The study of the origin of words is called etymology. For example, if a word were to be formed to indicate a condition of kidneys, there are two primary roots – one from Greek (nephr(os)) and one from Latin (ren(es)).

Renal failure is a condition of the kidneys, and nephritis is also a condition, or inflammation, of the kidneys. The suffix -itis means inflammation, and the entire word conveys the meaning inflammation of the kidney. To continue using these terms, other combinations are presented for the purpose of examples: The term supra-renal is a combination of the prefix supra- (meaning “above”), and the word root for kidney, and the entire word means “situated above the kidneys”. The word “nephrologist” combines the root word for the kidney with the suffix -ologist with the resultant meaning of “one who studies the kidneys”.

Forming plurals should usually be done using the rules of creating the proper plural form in the source language. Greek and Latin each have different rules to be applied when forming the plural form of the word root. Often, such details can be found using a medical dictionary, a glossary, or a paper such as the one you are reading right now).

Comprehensive List of Roots, Suffixes, and Prefixes used in Medical Terminology
Here is a slightly shortened version from a comprehensive, alphabetical list of roots, suffixes, and prefixes used in medical terminology, with their meanings and etymologies derived from Wikipedia[13]. The ‘Affix’ column covers prefixes and suffixes.

Statuette of ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep, the first physician from antiquity known by name
Attribution: Louvre Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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Names for Doctors who Specialise[14]
There are many types of doctors. Some work in local health centres, some in hospitals and some in other areas such as the armed forces. Some doctors perform technically difficult things such as surgery, while others treat patients with medicines or conduct tests and undertake research[15]. The following is a list of specialists, with apologies for any I may have omitted:

  • Allergists/Immunologists: treat immune system disorders such as asthma, eczema, food allergies, insect sting allergies, and some autoimmune diseases.
  • Anaesthetists: administer anaesthetics (drugs which cause loss of sensation) to patients before, during and after surgery and treat chronic pain.
  • Cardiologists: experts on the heart and blood vessels. They deal with matters such as heart failure, heart attacks, high blood pressure, or an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation).
  • Colorectal Surgeons (aka Proctologists): these are doctors who specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of anorectal and colorectal conditions (conditions of the colon, rectum and anus). Common conditions treated by colorectal surgeons include, colon cancer, haemorrhoids, anal fissures, fistulas, anal itching, anal cancer, rectal cancer, colon cancer, diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rectal prolapse, pilonidal cysts, anal condyloma, faecal incontinence, IBS (inflammatory bowel syndrome), Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and chronic constipation.
  • Dermatologists: A dermatologist is a doctor specialising in conditions involving the skin, hair, and nails. Among more than 3,000 conditions treated by dermatologists are eczema, psoriasis, and skin cancer.
  • Endocrinologists: an endocrinologist is an expert on hormones and metabolism. They can treat conditions like diabetes mellitus, thyroid problems, infertility, lipid disorders, adrenal disease, calcium and bone disorders, pituitary disease, and endocrine late effects of cancer treatment.
  • Forensic Physicians: the role of a forensic physician is varied – from providing medical care and assessing detainees in police custody to attending scenes of death and providing interpretation of their findings to the police and courts.
  • Gastroenterologists: deal with problems of the digestive organs, including the stomach, bowels, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. You might see them for abdominal pain, ulcers, diarrhoea, jaundice, or cancers in your digestive organs. They also do a colonoscopy and other tests for colon cancer.
  • Geneticists: diagnose and treat hereditary disorders passed down from parents to children. These doctors may also offer genetic counselling and screening tests. Conditions managed include: chromosomal abnormalities (which cause birth defects, intellectual disability and/or reproductive problems), single gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease and sickle cell disease, familial cancer and cancer-prone syndromes such as inherited breast or colorectal cancer and neurofibromatosis, birth defects with a genetic component such as neural tube defects and cleft lip and palate, inherited cardiac conditions associated with sudden death, and learning difficulties associated with other problems or a family history.[16]
  • Geriatricians: these doctors specialise in the care of the elderly. They can treat people in their homes, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, assisted-living centres, and hospitals. Geriatric medicine is the largest of all medical specialties. Common conditions treated include: fractures, delirium, dementia, incontinence, poor mobility and frailty.
  • Gynaecologists: they are specialists in the care of the female reproductive system. They treat issues related to the female reproductive tract (including the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and breasts). Gynaecologists give reproductive and sexual health services that include pelvic exams, Pap tests, cancer screenings, and testing and treatment for vaginal infections. They diagnose and treat reproductive system disorders such as endometriosis, infertility, ovarian cysts, and pelvic pain. They may also care for people with ovarian, cervical, and other reproductive cancers. Some gynaecologists also practice as obstetricians, giving care during pregnancy and birth.
  • Haematologists: specialising in diseases of the blood, spleen, and lymph glands, like sickle cell disease, anaemia, haemophilia, and leukaemia, Haematologists look after and investigate conditions that are associated with blood and bone marrow problems.
  • Infectious Disease Specialists: diagnose and treat infections in any part of your body, like fevers, Lyme disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV and AIDS. Some specialise in preventive medicine or travel medicine. They deal with infectious micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi. This speciality combines both clinical and laboratory practice.
  • Nephrologists (aka doctors in Renal Medicine): treat kidney diseases as well as high blood pressure and fluid and mineral imbalances linked to kidney disease.
  • Neurologists: these are specialists in the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. They treat strokes, brain and spinal tumours, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Oncologists: These doctors are cancer specialists. They undertake chemotherapy treatments and often work with radiation oncologists and surgeons to care for someone with cancer.
  • Ophthalmologists: You call them eye doctors. They can prescribe glasses or contact lenses and diagnose and treat diseases like glaucoma. Unlike optometrists, they’re medical doctors who can treat every kind of eye condition and, when necessary, operate on the eyes.
  • Otolaryngologists (aka otorhinolaryngologists): treat diseases in the ears, nose, throat, sinuses, head, neck, and respiratory system. They also can do reconstructive and plastic surgery on the head and neck.
  • Paediatricians: they care for children from birth to young adulthood. Some paediatricians specialise in pre-teens and teens, child abuse, or children’s developmental issues.
  • Pathologists: These laboratory doctors identify the causes of diseases by examining body tissues and fluids under microscopes.
  • Physiatrists: These specialise in physical medicine and rehabilitation treat neck or back pain and sports or spinal cord injuries as well as other disabilities caused by accidents or diseases.
  • Plastic Surgeons: You might call them cosmetic surgeons. They rebuild or repair your skin, face, hands, breasts, or body when defects occur after an injury or disease or are required for cosmetic reasons.
  • Preventive Medicine Specialists: They focus on keeping you well. They may work in public health or at hospitals. Some focus on treating people with addictions and illnesses arising from exposure to drugs, chemicals, poisons, and other areas.
  • Psychiatrists: specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental disorders. These doctors work with people with mental, emotional, or addictive disorders. They can diagnose and treat depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and sexual and gender identity issues. Some psychiatrists focus on children, adolescents, or the elderly.
  • Pulmonologists: You would see these specialists for problems like lung cancer, pneumonia, asthma, emphysema, and trouble sleeping caused by breathing issues.
  • Radiologist: Specialist in the medical use of imaging to diagnose and treat diseases seen within the body. They use X-rays, ultrasound, and other imaging tests to diagnose diseases. They can also specialise in radiation oncology to treat conditions like cancer.
  • Rheumatologists: They specialise in arthritis and other diseases in your joints, muscles, bones, and tendons. You might see them for your osteoporosis (weak bones), back pain, gout, tendinitis from sports or repetitive injuries, and fibromyalgia.
  • Sleep Medicine Specialists: They find and treat the causes of poor sleep patterns, such as sleep apnea. They may have special units or provide take-home tests to chart your sleep-wake patterns.
  • Surgeons: a surgeon is a specialist in surgery, which is a broad category of invasive medical treatment that involves operating on the body.
  • Urologists: These are surgeons who care for both men and women having problems in the urinary tract, like a leaky bladder. They also treat male infertility and do prostate examinations.

Sources and Further Reading

Picture Credit:eye surgeon” by wolfgangfoto is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

  1. Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus, often Anglicised as Galen or Galen of Pergamon, was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire. He exercised a dominant influence on medical theory and practice in Europe from the Middle Ages until the mid-17th century. His authority in the Byzantine world and the Muslim Middle East was similarly long-lived. Sources:,, and
  2. Source: Nutton, V. (2005). “The Fatal Embrace: Galen and the History of Ancient Medicine”. Science in Context. 18 (1): 111–121.
  3. Hippocrates, (born c. 460 BC Cos,Greece, died c. 375 BC Larissa, Thessaly), ancient Greek physician who lived during Greece’s Classical period and is traditionally regarded as the father of medicine. Source:
  4. Source: Sigerist, HE (1950). A History of Medicine. I. Primitive and Archaic Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 298–318.
  5. Sources: (1) Craik, Elizabeth (2017). “The Lexicographer Erotian as a Guide to the Hippocratic Corpus”. JASCA (Japan Studies in Classical Antiquity). 3: 3–16. (2) Ambrose, Charles (2005-04-01). “A Short History of Medical Dictionaries”. The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha-Honor Medical Society. 68 (2): 24–27.
  6. Aretaeus is one of the most celebrated of the ancient Greek physicians. Little is known of his life. He presumably was a native or at least a citizen of Cappadocia, a Roman province in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and most likely lived in the second half of the 2nd century AD. Aretaeus wrote in Ionic Greek. His eight treatises on diseases, which are still extant, are considered to be among the most important Greco-Roman medical works ever written. His valuable work displays great accuracy in the detail of symptoms, and in seizing the diagnostic character of diseases. In his practice he followed for the most part the method of Hippocrates, but he paid less attention to what have been styled “the natural actions” of the system; and, contrary to the practice of the Father of Medicine, he did not hesitate to attempt to counteract them, when they appeared to him to be injurious.
  7. Source:
  8. Source: “Introduction to Medical Terminology – AAPC”.
  9. Source and Credit:
  10. Source: Incorporating text available under the CC BY 4.0 license. Betts, J Gordon; Desaix, Peter; Johnson, Eddie; Johnson, Jody E; Korol, Oksana; Kruse, Dean; Poe, Brandon; Wise, James; Womble, Mark D; Young, Kelly A (February 26, 2016). Anatomy & Physiology. Houston: OpenStax CNX. 1.6. Anatomical Terminology. ISBN 978-1-93-816813-0. ID: 14fb4ad7-39a1-4eee-ab6e-3ef2482e3e22@8.24.
  11. Source: Betts, J Gordon; Desaix, Peter; Johnson, Eddie; Johnson, Jody E; Korol, Oksana; Kruse, Dean; Poe, Brandon; Wise, James; Womble, Mark D; Young, Kelly A (October 3, 2013). Anatomy & Physiology. Houston: OpenStax CNX. 1.6. Anatomical Terminology. ISBN 978-1-93-816813-0..
  12. Source:
  13. Source:,_suffixes_and_prefixes
  14. Sources:,
  15. Source:
  16. Source:

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