Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Language of Medicine: National Doctors' Day

In the US, today is National Doctors' Day and though we know very little about medicine, we like to think we know quite a bit about language.

A few weeks ago we had a look at binomial nomenclature and how convention dictated that when it came to naming life, Greek and Latin were the languages of choice. The same can be said for medicine as frankly every science has a bit of a love affair with the classical languages.

E. coli magnified 10,000 times.
When it comes to bacteria, Greek is the preferred language. One of the most commonly known bacteria, Escherichia coli, or simply E. coli, takes its name from Greek. Genes, however, are a lot more complicated when it comes to naming.

The Terminologia Anatomica (TA) is the naming convention used when it comes to the human body. It has a good number of rules, as well as 16 subsections ranging from general anatomy to bones, joints, muscles, and various systems of the human body.

Prior to the Terminologia Anatomica there was the Nomina Anatomica (NA), another set of international standards used until the TA usurped it. Prior to the NA pretty much everything was named following vernacular translations from Greek and Latin leaving around 50,000 terms, which was clearly far too many.

The NA addressed this issue by setting up standards for nomenclature. After the NA was applied, the number of terms was reduced to 5,528, which is obviously much easier to work with on an international level.

Once the TA was set up in 1998, it was adopted as the international standard. Since the TA is only available in three languages many places still use the NA since the TA is not available in their mother tongue.