18 Jun

It was Blood Donor Day earlier this week and I started thinking about medical language. Not the Latin and Greek tongue twisters but some of the everyday verbs we use to describe and discuss illness. 

It may seem odd but in English we use verbs – action words – to describe illness. Verbs are commonly associated with actions like walk, eat, cry, dance. So John walked all the way home or you may say to a friend, ‘Throw me the ball. I will catch it’.  But you may also say, ‘I do not want to catch a cold in winter’. Same word and verb – catch - in two entirely different contexts. 

The verb catch is very irregular – in the past tense it becomes that strange sounding word caught pronounced kort. It is a verb, so it describes an action. When we catch something it means an item has been thrown – like a ball. He caught the ball with both hands. 

In English we catch a virus – like a cold or COVID, but we do not catch a disease like cancer – we are diagnosed with a disease. Diagnosed is still the verb though because it is the action. It is describing how we discover we are ill or the label given to what is making us feel unwell. We do not catch a headache – we have a headache, or we get a headache. These are both – have and get – verbs within these sentences because they are describing an action. 

My doctor examined me after I told her my symptoms. Examined is an adjective but when my doctor tells me about the instruments she will use in my surgery – she uses nouns like scissors, retractors. After the surgery the doctor prescribed rest and some medication - is a verb and a conjunction.  

Did you realise that when you tell your doctor that your muscles hurt, you are using a Latin word next to a verb to describe your symptoms? Muscle comes from Latin and hurts is your verb because you are describing what it is doing. And if you use the word ‘spasms’ to describe the way it hurts you’ve used a word assimilated  from Greek into Latin, from Latin into Old French, from Old French into English, “spasmos” − “spasmus” − “spasme” − “spasm”. Sometimes you really do have to admire the brazen theft of words which form modern English. 

It is interesting that some suffixes – parts of a word that go after another word – can be both a suffix and a condition in the medical environment. Someone may tell you that they have Anaemia. Whilst another may say that they have Hyperglycaemia. The first person has too little of something in their blood whilst the second has too much. But they both have a condition seen in their blood – aemia a bio-chemical condition of the blood. 

Haemo-, haem-, haemato-, -aem means the word relates to blood. For example, haemophobia is the fear of blood and apparently 3-4% of the population have this. See we use a verb to describe something, even if it is a fear of something because that fear is an action. 

Apparently tennis great Rafael Nadal suffers from haemophobia. He said, “Whenever I see blood I get nervous and I usually pass out when my blood is drawn! It’s even difficult for me to speak about blood.” I won’t ask him to donate but I would love him to keep playing tennis. 


Lysanets, Yuliia V. & Bieliaieva, Olena M. ‘The use of Latin terminology in medical case reports: quantitative, structural, and thematic analysis’, Journal of Medical Case Reports volume 12, Article number: 45 (2018)

Medical Terms - Dissected, Defined And Explained, Compiled and written by Charlotte Edwards, UCL, Aug 2004 © https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lapt/medterms.htm

WHAT IS HEMOPHOBIA: 5 CELEBRITIES WITH FEAR OF BLOOD https://thepsycure.org/celebrities-with-fear-of-blood-hemophobia/

Biology Prefixes and Suffixes: hem- or hemo- or hemato- https://www.thoughtco.com/biology-prefixes-and-suffixes-hem-or-hemo-or-hemato-373717

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