Do laypersons understand medical terms?

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?


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.

Source : Link , Question Author : McBear Holden , Answer Author : Mitch

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