I'm from China and I would like to ask English native speakers whether a non-medical professional understands medical terms? Examples:

  1. rhinorrhea
  2. rhinitis
  3. laryngoscopy
  4. laryngitis
  5. laryngostenosis
  6. bronchiectasis
  7. bronchopathy
  8. bronchospasm
  9. pneumothorax
  10. pneumonitis
  11. pulmonologist
  12. pulmonary or pulmonic
  13. dyspnea
  14. bradypnea
  15. tachypnea
  16. apnea
  17. rhinoplasty
  18. thoracocentesis or thoracentesis
  19. pulmonectomy or pneumonectomy
  20. tracheostomy

So do people with a high school degree readily understand the above terms?

I'm trying to compare language learning difficulties between Chinese and other languages.

I know that in China, a person with middle school or even primary school education can understand those terms in Chinese(at least the general meaning)

For my personal experience, I've been learning and using English on a daily basis for 20 years and yet I'm ashamed to say that I look completely lost in front of these words. The explanation for my ignorance of medical terms could be that I've never been or lived in any English speaking country so I'm not exposed to daily language.

What do you think?

  • 8
    I think some people might understand some of those terms. I doubt there are very many non-medical professionals who would understand all those terms. And I very much doubt a middle school Chinese person would understand all those terms either.
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2018 at 21:25
  • 2
    @Jim, for example: rhinoplasty. I have no idea that it's has anything to do with noses. The reason it's simple in Chinese is that the Chinese translation of this word is literally Nose Plastic Operation, which high schoolers understand with ease Oct 22, 2018 at 21:30
  • 1
    Ok I see. Yes, some people know that rhino- has to do with noses, but many fewer knows what the difference is between an -ostomy and an -ectasis. Some might have never seen rhinorrhea but knows what rhinoplasty is and what diarrhea is and could take a guess at what it is. I've heard of apnea for example but not dyspnea or bradypnea.
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2018 at 21:39
  • 11
    Also note that these are the "medical" terms. There are other more common terms that a middle schooler would know for these: runny nose, difficulty breathing, lost your voice etc
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2018 at 22:07
  • 4
    @osager: "Grammar nazi" is widely used on the Internet and in less formal spoken English. Be careful about using it, though, as for many people "Nazi" still has a very strong, very evil meaning.
    – K.A.Monica
    Oct 23, 2018 at 0:01

4 Answers 4


Translation is a difficult task. Cultures are different, situations are different, histories are different.

English is interesting because it has a mixed heritage for many medical terms. For many medical situations there is a basic English term, and there is a Latin technical term, and there might possibly be a Greek or even another Latin term. Part of a physicians training (in the US at least) is learning how to convert a patient's vague non-technical words into the more precise, Latinate technical terms (this is called 'processing').

For example, a patient may say "I'm having trouble breathing". By asking more questions, the physician can decide between things and labeling them more technically: if it is inflammation in the throat (laryngitis a common), wheezing (bronchitis) or shortness of breath (dyspnea, neologism from Greek. generally entirely unknown, a medically common word and condition, but not in any online etymology).

For another example, to expel liquid from the urinary bladder, the vulgar juvenile word is 'to piss' (an Anglo-French borrowing). But everyone is comfortable with the more erudite 'urinate' a Late Latin (=Medieval/Ecclesiastical Latin) neologism. This is also what physicians use except when they want to hide things a little and then they use 'micturate'.

Most English speaking people don't have education in Latin or Greek, so most of those terms are etymologically opaque. There's actually a bit of obscurantism, whether by logical depth of scientific distinction or intentional euphemism/hiding by the clinician for social reasons (not to freak out the patient) or ego (to make one seem smarter). The patient may well have heard a commercial so they have an idea that 'rhinitis' is something like a cold but they will just say 'my nose is stuffed up'. But 'dyspnea'? The patient may say they have trouble breathing, but they won't recognize the term 'dyspnea' if they see what the doc is writing down.

My limited perception of Mandarin Chinese is that medical terms are in general 'transparent'. The English label 'pulmonologist' is usually rendered in Chinese as '肺科医生' which is more literally 'lung (department) doctor'. English speakers know 'lung' and 'doctor', but 'pulmono-' is just as foreign as the Chinese is to them (they may have trouble pronouncing it even). Some Germanic languages are similarly namely German which has an easy method of technical term formation from basic words (which English does not share). French on the other hand is more like English in that its medical vocabulary is incomprehensible to the general public.

Of your list above, the following are understandable by the general US populace (who haven't experienced the problem personally):

  • laryngitis - a common enough thing used by non-clinicians as a fancy synonym for sore throat
  • apnea - a popular notion, again fancy for snoring (or rather the cause of snoring)
  • rhinoplasty - elective plastic surgery is as common in the US as in China, so this is a well known synonym for 'nose job'
  • tracheotomy - every other movie comedy seems to have a scene where the protagonist has to perform an emergency tracheotomy on some one choking in a restaurant because they saw how to do it on TV (note: tracheotomy is the procedure, tracheostomy is the hole itself)

All the other words on the list are highly technical terms. Most high-school graduates would never have seen these terms before but could guess at some of the meanings with some non-trivial accuracy. However these words should all be explained to non-medical readers in the US.

This is not to say that the education system in the US is not teaching students the right things. At some point, the basic English vocabulary just does not cover the explosion of technical scientific minutiae in medicine. It takes years of higher learning (medical school) to master these terms. It's just that the culture (and the word forming tradition of English culture) lends itself to using obscure Latin and Greek rather than simpler already known Germanic roots.

A more quantitative way to say this would be to give you their frequency in non-medical contexts. All these terms I'd expect to be well out of the top 20-30K working vocabulary of most US adults.

TL;DR: No need to feel bad. Most of the terms in your list are entirely opaque to non-medical people. There is a 'code' to break, and it is breakable by learning a good set of body parts and such: brady- = slow, tachy- = fast, card- = heart, -pnea = breathing so bradycardia = slow heart rate, tachypnea, fast breathing rate.

  • 4
    Although in typical TV shows tracheotomy is used not tracheostomy.
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2018 at 22:00
  • 1
    So, you perform a tracheotomy then...
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2018 at 22:48
  • 3
    @osager most of the technical English medical vocabulary was developed, as borrowed almost directly from Latin in the 1500s/1600s (with lots of other erudite academic terminology), or coined by individual physicians over the next few centuries, and promulgated to other physicians by letters or journals. So no academy or society decided, but doctors agreed among themselves by favoring one version over another.
    – Mitch
    Oct 22, 2018 at 22:53
  • 2
    It's interesting that I'd never heard of tracheostomy before today but I've known about tracheotomy for at least 45 years when as kids we'd play M* A* S* H.
    – Jim
    Oct 22, 2018 at 23:06
  • 2
    One reason for the Latin/Greek terms in medicine (and many other sciences) is that for several centuries, Latin (and to a lesser extent Greek) was the lingua franca en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingua_franca in Europe, much as English is today. So by using these terms, an English physician could discuss medicine with his French, German &c colleagues.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 23, 2018 at 3:51

People with some knowledge of classical languages such as Greek and Latin can usually work out what those terms mean. For example 'rhin' refers to the the nose and 'tachy' means speedy.

Biologists too should be able to make a good guess.

These days, a classical education is relatively rare and so I suspect the majority of the population would only know these words if they or a close friend or relative had suffered from such a condition.

  • Thank you for the reply. I guess the same can be said to other languages such as French or German. Anyway that does make western languages more difficult in this sense. Oct 22, 2018 at 21:51
  • 3
    @Osager: German has a mostly full set of native words for anatomy and most common diseases which are easily understood. In combination, however, they can be unwieldly: Bauchspeicheldrüsenentzündung = Pankreatitis. In this respect, German is closer to Chinese.
    – KarlG
    Oct 22, 2018 at 22:03
  • @KarlG Wow this is interesting! I guess that's one reason German is not a Latin language? I hear that English and German share some of the same roots. With time they do diverse in the way they construct new vocabularies. This could be what Mitch says in her/his reply that culture and situation play a role here. Oct 22, 2018 at 22:07
  • @osager Actually, most languages do use "native terms". Really, even English-speaking countries usually do; the main reason to use the Latin terms in the past has been to make sure doctors from different countries can use one language to talk about diseases etc.; if you translate the Latin words, you literally get e.g. "inflammation of the lung". But of course, using Latin makes you sound better educated and trustworthy in some cultures, since Latin and Greek were the lingua franca of all the educated people of Europe for millenia. A bad doctor can get an aura of authority that way.
    – Luaan
    Oct 23, 2018 at 7:47

My personal reaction to your list:

  • laryngitis — I think that means a sore throat.
  • laryngoscopy — I've never seen this word, but from "-scopy" I suppose it's a throat examination.
  • pulmonary — I think that's something to do with the heart.
  • pulmonologist — A specialist in "pulmonary", I suppose. But if those two words weren't adjacent in your list I might miss the connection.
  • apnea — Vaguely sounds scary. A hole in the heart?
  • tracheostomy — That might be the dramatic trick where they push a ball-point pen into the throat for emergency breathing, but I'm not confident.

All the others give the strong feeling of being medical terms — I know they are not plants for example — and yet I can't define them at all.

That's despite the fact that I also speak Spanish well, and some French, and I enjoy recognizing the many Latin roots among these languages, and I enjoy reading about word etymologies (I'm just trying to clarify I'm not a moron!); apparently that is not enough for these words.

So "no" is the answer to your question!

Someone without medical training will understand more words on that list if someone in their life has experienced the conditions, or maybe if they watch medical dramas on TV. But I wouldn't be surprised to meet a native English speaker who could define nothing on your list.

For what it's worth, the spell checker in my Firefox browser recognizes only "rhinitis", "laryngitis", "pulmonary", and "rhinoplasty", and is confused by all the others.

"Laryngitis" is the only one I feel I should know. I've heard it enough times. The others feel like jargon used only by doctors.

I recently read a UK news article about doctors being urged to use "plain English" terms instead, precisely because the medical terms can be so unfamiliar and scary to patients:

That article tells me that "pulmonary" means lung, not heart. I also checked the others and it turns out that "apnea" means "not breathing", and "laryngitis" means a problem with the voice, not precisely "sore throat", from "larynx" meaning voice box. You see? I haven't a clue.

  • 1
    Thanks for the link of the BBC video. It's hilarious. I feel much better for not knowing those terms:) Oct 23, 2018 at 7:20
  • 2
    A fluent Spanish speaker should understand "pulmonary" as something to do with a "pulmón" (lung), not the heart. Oct 23, 2018 at 11:03
  • 1
    @deinocheirus True! I'm still learning.
    – Boann
    Oct 23, 2018 at 18:01

I assume more people would know that "rhino" relates to noses 'cause rhinoceroses.

Also, "sleep apnea", people sorta know it relates to snoring?

But the other ones, not as well known.

I think laryngitis is known well as a sore throat... Thoraxes too, but pneumothorax not so much, but, pneumonia... ... Also, bronchitis.

And Daily Cardio...

Maybe try Google NGrams to see the popularity of certain suffixes, phrases, prefixes, and such.

  • 3
    Rhinosaurus... that sounds like a nose-lizzard, a dinosaur I was unfamiliar with. Did you mean rhinoceros, meaning nose-horn, by any chance?
    – oerkelens
    Oct 23, 2018 at 6:24
  • The only things that are widely known are the ones used in advertising to mostly sell you drugs you don't need. Also, medical TV operas, though those are just as likely to use the wrong terms :) Pneumothorax used to be in like every second "gritty and realistic" military movie two decades back, so it did get some recognition, but it's losing ground fast. We've (I'm not from an English-speaking country) learned all of this in high school, but I suspect most people either didn't pay attention or forgot everything in the meantime, and it's not taught in all high schools.
    – Luaan
    Oct 23, 2018 at 7:54
  • @oerkelens - Yes. Facepalm.
    – Malady
    Oct 23, 2018 at 18:15

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