I'm studying some medical terms and one of them is "arteries of the upper limb" and another one is "superior vena cava". As I translate them, superior and upper both have the same meaning which is "above the other or higher" so I'm asking: if they are not synonynms what is the difference between them?

The same question goes for "inferior" and "lower".

  • 3
    What context are you referring to? Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 15:27
  • 1
    Hi, thanks for visiting ELU! That's a good question, but I feel it may be a little too basic for this site. However, we have a sister site called English Language Learners where I think your question may be more appropriate. Thank you!
    – mike
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 15:27
  • Medical context @marcellothearcane Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 15:29
  • Could you share us some real life examples? I'm still a little lost... Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 15:30
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    I edited your question based on your comment. This included adding a phrase to your title. If this misrepresents you question, I'm sorry, but you can further edit it.
    – ab2
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 16:48

3 Answers 3


Scientists often prefer to use technical terms that are usually (but not always) more precise than those found in everyday language.

So "superior vena cava" is specifying an exact spatial relationship to other structures found in the heart. By contrast, the term "upper limb" is referring to less well-defined regions of the body, so does not need to be so precise.

  • I almost got it, so "superior" and "upper" have the same indication, only "superior" has more specification and usually scientists prefer to use it, right? Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 17:12
  • @mohammedqasem. Yes, in this case, "superior" and "upper" are synonyms. So the choice of which one to use is mostly a matter of context. However, in other scientific fields (such as botany), "superior" has other, much more specialised meanings, so "upper" would not be synonymous with it.
    – ekhumoro
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 17:31
  • And in ordinary English, there are many places where the two are not synonymous. For example, "Apartment 101 is superior to Apartment 103" means that Apt 101 is in some way better -- nicer view, larger, more recently remodeled -- but not that it is physically above Apt 103. And saying Apt 1203 is on an upper story and Apt 403 is on a lower story does not necessarily mean that Apt 1203 is superior, even if it has a better view. Apt 1203 could be inferior to Apt 403 because, e.g., its plumbing leaks.
    – ab2
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 18:45
  • Oh this is exactly what I was looking for , thanks a lot Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 21:01

I can think of two relevant factors.

"Superior" and "inferior" are "Standard anatomical terms of location" (Wikipedia) with directions that are defined relative to the standard anatomical position. As far as I know, "upper" and "lower" are not strictly defined in this manner.

Another relevant factor is that "superior" and "inferior" are not only English, but also Latin, so you can expect to see them rather than "upper" and "lower" in set phrases inherited from Latin.

"Vena cava" was inherited as a set phrase from Latin, and so it makes some sense that people would be used to seeing this phrase in Latin language contexts, where one might write about the "vena cava superior" (in Latin adjectives usually come after the modified noun, although this is not an absolute constraint), and when speaking in English, would call it the "superior vena cava", changing only the word order to conform to English conventions, but not changing the adjective used to descibe the vein.

Examples of use of Latin phrases and word order to refer to the venae cavae:

Vena cava inferior.—The vena cava inferior is the trunk of all the abdominal veins and those of the lower extremities, from which parts the blood is returned in the following manner.

(Pantologia: A New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol. XII, 1819)

AA. The vena cava anterior.
BBB. The venae cavae inferiores.

("Sir Everard Home's account of the circulation of the blood in the class Vermes," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1817)

Side note on pluralization

Note that, while the proper plural forms in Latin of the adjectives "superior/inferior" are "superiores/inferiores" respectively, I have never seen these used in English in preposed position. For the plural of "superior vena cava", people most often write "superior venae cavae"; a small number go full Latin and write "venae cavae superiores" (or go the other way and write "superior vena cavas"), but the Google Ngram Viewer indicates negligible usage of "superiores venae cavae":

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Our body: left, right, up and down. visible body

Anatomical position is the description of any region or part of the body in a specific stance. In the anatomical position, the body is upright, directly facing the observer, feet flat and directed forward. The upper limbs are at the body’s sides with the palms facing forward.

Imagine 2 surgeons operating on your abdomen. One says "sponge to the right". The other says: "Who's right: mine, yours or the patient's"? Thus the patient-centric anatomic orientation was established. Surgeon 1 would say: "Apply sponge inferior and medial to hemostat". Surgeon 2 says: "Aye"!

medial sag plane

These 11 descriptions allow a common lexicon for the healthcare team to navigate the body!


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