Learning the Language of Medicine

by Lindsay Ostrander

Some of the oldest written sources in western medicine date back to Hippocrates in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. (nih). Many symptoms and diseases are still derived from the Greek language. For instance, the Greek term dyspnoea translates to bad breathing. Today medical professionals use the word dyspnea to describe the difficult or labored breathing often seen in patients. While many roots are the same, throughout history the words themselves have been modified. When the Roman Empire exerted their influence on medicine, they synthesized Latin and Greek to form new medical terms.

“Hypertension” is an example of a Greek and Latin hybrid. “Hyper” is a Greek prefix meaning extreme, and “tension” is the Latin suffix for pressure (Translation from dictionary.com). When combined, they describe the extreme tension in the blood vessels common to the pathophysiological process of hypertension. Understanding the pieces of the word rather than each individual term allows you to apply your linguistic knowledge to any term.

There are many ways to ease in to learning medical terminology:

1. Create your own cheat sheet:

Break the words down into their building blocks-

  • Prefix + root


+ Cardia

Pertaining to the heart

= Bradycardia A slow heartbeat.
  • Root + suffix


+ Genous


= endogenous Generating or growing within an organism.
  • Prefix + Root + suffix

Pertaining to the heart

+ -Myo


+ -Pathy

Disease process

Disease of the heart muscle.
  • Prefix + Suffix


+ -Tension


= Hypertension Great pressure in the blood vessels.


2. Make Lists of common prefixes, roots, and suffixes:

Prefix/ Suffix/ Root Meaning Examples
-a, an


Denotes an absence of; without. Apathy, analgia


Of or pertaining to the cerebellum Cerebellum


Process Maturation, sedimentation


Of, pertaining to the arms and limbs Arthritis, Arthroscopy

3. Use on line resources and books:


Obviously, there is a great amount of information to memorize. One way to streamline this process is to recognize what type of learner you are, and study using corresponding techniques. For example, a visual learner may benefit from adding color to their lists. An auditory learner may find that group work, and repeating aloud is an ideal strategy. Sometimes using more than one method can benefit the learner.




Lewis, K. N. (2004). The language of modern medicine: It’s all Greek to me. The American Surgeon, 70(1), 91-3.

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