Medical terminology is a vocabulary for accurately describing the human body and associated components, conditions, processes and procedures in a science-based manner. This systematic approach to word building and term comprehension is based on the concept of: (1) Word roots, (2) prefixes, and (3) suffixes. The word root is a term derived from a source language such as Greek or Latin and usually describes a body part. The prefix can be added in front of the term to modify the word root by giving additional information about the location of an organ, the number of parts, or time involved. Suffixes are attached to the end of a word root to add meaning such as condition, disease process, or procedure.
In the process of creating medical terminology, certain rules of language apply. These rules are part of language mechanics called linguistics. So, when a term is developed, some logical process is applied. The word root is developed to include a vowel sound following the term to add a smoothing action to the sound of the word when applying a suffix. The result is the formation of a new term with a vowel attached (word root + vowel) called a combining form. In English, the most common vowel used in the formation of the combining form is the letter -o-, added to the word root.
Prefixes do not normally require further modification to be added to a word root because the prefix normally ends in a vowel or vowel sound, although in some cases they may assimilate slightly and an in- may change to im- or syn- to sym-.
Suffixes are categorized as either (1) needing the combining form, or (2) not needing the combining form since they start with a vowel.
Decoding the medical term is an important process, (See: Morphology). Once experience is gained in the process of forming and decoding medical terminology, the process begins to make sense and becomes easier. One approach involves breaking down the word by evaluating the meaning of the suffix first, then prefix, and finally the word root. This will generally produce a good result for the experienced health care professional. When in doubt, the result should be verified by a medical terminology dictionary. The process of learning a new language, such as medical terminology, is a challenging, yet attainable goal as the basic rules--once learned--make the process easier. (See Applied Linguistics)
One quick online reference is a dictionary search engine. The search engine allows one to enter a medical term into a dialogue box and initiate a search. There are also numerous online medical dictionaries to select from. Once a term is located, the response will be subdivided into several basic formats, including General usage, Medicine, Law, Business, and others.
The use of a medical dictionary or Internet search engine is most helpful in learning the exact meaning of a medical term. However, if the basic concepts of word building are understood, many words are understandable to the student of medical terminology.
In forming or understanding a word root, one needs a basic comprehension of the term and the source language. The study of the origin of words is called etymology. For example, if a word was to be formed to indicate a condition of kidneys, there are two primary roots – one from Greek (nefr(os)) and one from Latin (ren(es)). Renal failure would be a condition of kidneys, and nephritis is also a condition, or inflammation, of the kidneys. The suffix -itis means inflammation, and the entire word conveys the meaning inflammation of the kidney. To continue using these terms, other combinations will be presented for the purpose of examples: The term 'suprarenal is a combination of the prefix supra- (meaning "above"), and the word root for kidney, and the entire word means "situated above the kidneys". The word "nephrologist" combines the root word for kidney to the suffix -ologist with the resultant meaning of "one who studies the kidneys".
In medical terminology, the word root is not usually capable of standing alone as a complete word in a sentence. This is different than most word roots in modern standard English. The medical word root is taken from a different source language, so it will remain meaningless as a stand-alone term in an English sentence. A suffix or prefix must be added to make a usable medical term. For example the term for "concerning the heart" is "cardiacus", from the Greek kardía. If a person is suffering from a heart related illness, the statement, "The patient suffered a kardía event," would not make sense. However, with the addition of a suffix "ac", the statement would be modified to read, "The patient suffered a cardiac event" which is an acceptable use of medical terminology. The process is different in standard English because the word roots are capable of standing alone in a sentence. For example, the word eye is a word root in English that can be used without modification in a sentence.
An additional challenge to the student of medical terminology is that the formation of the plural of a word must be done using the rules of forming the proper plural form as used in the source language. This is more difficult than in English, were adding "s" or "es" is the rule. Greek and Latin each have differing rules to be applied when forming the plural form of the word root. Often such can be found using a medical terminology dictionary (listed in External links below).
There is also another rule of medical terminology to be recognised by the student. When more than one body part is used in the formation of a medical term, the individual word roots are joined together by using the combining form using the letter -o- to indicate the joining together of various body parts. For example if there is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, this would be written as gastro and enter plus itis, gastroenteritis. In this example, the -o- signifies the joining together of two body parts.
-al pertaining to
-y process of
ana/tom/y process of cutting apart; study of body parts by dissection
-ology study of
bio/logy study of life
physi/ology study of nature or natural
ante in front of
anter/ior in the front
poster/ior in back of
super/ior above a part
infer/ior below a part
al pertaining to
caud/al pertaining to the tail
crani/al pertaining to the skull
dist/al pertaining to distand part
dors/al pertaining to the back
later/al pertaining to the side
medi/al pertaining to the middle
proxim near the booty
proxim/al pertaining to nearness or close
ventr belly or front side
ventr/al pertaining to the belly or front side
- Applied linguistics
- Lists of etymologies
- Medical dictionary
- Medical Prefixes, Suffixes, and Combining Forms
- Morphology (linguistics)
- Register (Linguistics)
- Root (linguistics)
For a comprehensive discussion and reference table of medical terms, visit:
- KMLE Medical Dictionary
- Medical Etymology Anatomy
- Stedman's Online Medical Dictionary, 27th Edition
- University of Maryland Glossary of Medical Terms, includes translator feature for Spanish
- Medical Terminology Dictionary and self-assesment quizzes