Tips and trivia regarding the language of human science and medicine.

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Is it Mamillary or Mammillary?

There are two acceptable spellings of this term that can be used to name a pair of hypothalamic nuclei in the brain (see the illustration below) and other structures that resemble a small human female breast:
mam(m)- breast, -ill(a)- little,-ary relating to

Originally, it was mamillary from the Latin spelling of the term mamillaris. The variant mammillary arose because of the close association with the related English term mammary (relating to the breast).

Both spellings are widely used. In my textbook Anatomy & Physiology, I chose the former spelling (the "single m"). Mamillary is used in ICD-9 medical coding and in many medical textbooks) because it more closely follows the Latin word from which it is derived, mamillaris. As many of my readers have noticed, the parsing of Latin roots is a theme in our textbook that is not found in most other anatomy and physiology textbooks, so it makes sense that we'd go in this direction, given a choice of two acceptable spellings.

This brings up the interesting and important phenomenon that applies to both spelling and pronunciation: there are sometimes several acceptable alternates but we often assume that the way we learned it (or the way it appears in the teaching resources we use) is the only correct option.

It turns out that our learning of scientific and medical terminology is never complete and so we should always double-check misspellings (and mispronunciations) in case they turn out to be correct (even if odd) alternates with which we are not yet familiar.

You may also be interested in a previous post on variations in pronunciation of anatomical terms:

Graphic from Anatomography


Meatus | Weird Word

The term meatus is a weird one. The plural form is not what you might think if you've never heard it before.
meatus passage or channel
In anatomy, the term meatus refers to a passageway or opening into (or through) a tube.

Meatus is a noun derived from the Latin verb meare, which means "to pass."

For example, the term external acoustic meatus refers to the tubelike opening in the temporal bone that allows passage of the tubelike canal of the external ear bearing the same name.

There are many examples of meatus throughout the body.

What?! Was that a typo? Did I just mean to state, "examples of meatus throughout the body."? Yes. Yes, I did.

Considering the many nouns in science and medicine that end in -us and are pluralized by changing the -us to -i, one would think that the proper plural form of meatus is meati. Nope.

The term meatus is a weird one, remember? It's proper plural form is either meatus or meatuses.

Why the weirdness?

The plural form meatus comes from the fact that it in Latin, it belongs to the fourth declension class of nouns—and as such, meatus is the proper plural form in Latin.

The plural form meatuses adopts the English form of pluralization, which happens frequently when Latin terms are imported into English.

The combining form of meatus is meato-, as in meatoscope (for looking into the urinary meatus).


Modern Use of Eponyms

I love eponyms!

I'm a bit sad that eponyms—terms that include a proper name—are going out of style in the world of human sciences, it seems.

Paul Langerhans
The international lists of anatomic terminology recommend against most eponyms, providing descriptive terms in their place.  For example, pancreatic islet is the term  preferred to the eponym islet of Langerhans.  Osteon is preferred over haversian system.

Of course, I get that.  Descriptive terms are more intuitive and therefore easier to understand, learn, and remember. Related to that is that they are more accurate when it comes to medical applications.  And I'm all about accuracy in the medical professions.

It's just kind of fun using eponyms.  And kind of sad to feel like I am leaving behind all those wonderful women and men who discovered our parts way back when.

But it's not just the international lists of anatomy that are leaving eponyms behind—all the "authorities," including most medical textbooks are doing it. Professional societies, associations, and boards in the basic sciences and the health professions are doing it.  So if we want to be "in style" with our terminology—and more importantly, make sure our students are sporting the latest linguistic style—we'd better pay attention to the trends, eh?

Let me give you some unasked-for fashion tips if you want to be stylish in your use of professional terminology:

Avoid eponyms

If there's an accepted descriptive term, it's best to use that rather than the eponym.

Be bilingual

Some folks you'll encounter are old-fashioned or possibly don't know the newer descriptive term.  Or they know both and use them interchangeably.  Because we're on the cusp of a fashion revolution here, the most competent professionals will know both and be able to switch back and forth easily as the context requires. The goal is to understand and be understood, right?

What to do if you have to use an eponym

Then use an eponym! There are some commonly used terms for which there really isn't a great descriptive term to replace an eponym.  For example, Parkinson disease, Alzheimer disease, and other disorders often don't have a widely accepted alternative. So absolute avoidance of eponyms is not (yet) possible.

Fashionable uses of eponyms

If you must use an eponym, the trendy folks at AMA and elsewhere avoid the use of possessive forms.  For example, notice how I used the term Parkinson disease above and not Parkinson's disease?  It's better to use Down syndrome than Down's syndrome—and even better to use trisomy 21 syndrome.

Likewise, the possessive loop of Henle is out of favor but using Henle loop may still get you into most of the trendy clubs.

Illusory eponym styles

When you try to get away with using a possessive form of an eponym and yet still avoid arrest by the fashion police, you have to be very cunning.  Here's a common way that's done: use the adjective form of a proper name.  So if you want to honor Gabriele Falloppio's work in describing uterine tubes, then use his Latinized name (Fallopius) in the form of an adjective and call them Fallopian tubes.

Gabriele Falloppio
But, you may say, that's not a very clever masking of the fact that it's an eponym. In fact, it's pretty obvious, right?  Well here's the sly part: cover it up by using a lowercase letter—thus obscuring the fact that it incorporates a proper noun. That's why many sources use fallopian tube instead of Fallopian tube.

Terms like eustachian tube and haversian canal may not seem like well-hidden eponyms in our context here, where we're actually focusing on eponyms. But most grand stage illusions—like Blackstone's making an elephant appear on stage from thin air—rely on such subtle misdirection.

So when you are using an adjective form of an eponym, it's best not to capitalize it and risk possible arrest by the fashion police.

Fashion rules are not really rules

With any fashion, the "rules" are not usually rules in the formal sense.  They are simple formulations of trends that, if heeded, will likely save you some embarrassment when you don't appear to be cool.  So if you have a good reason—or even a lame reason—to ignore these rules, I think you'll probably survive. People laugh (even hoot) at my disregard for current clothing fashion all the time—you get used to it.

OK, sometimes fashion rules really are rules

As with any professional communication, sometimes fashion rules get set in stone in a required style to which you must adhere in your work.  Sort of like a dress code for words. For example, students learn how to use professional styles when we require that they submit their assignments in APA, Chicago, or CBE style. Likewise, in publishing journal articles, books, and other works, there are rules established that provide consistency—and, therefore, also accuracy.  Each publisher, sometimes each journal or textbook, has it's own house style that defines such things. So if your journal editor insists on Eustachian tube instead of auditory tube or eustachian tube, then I recommend doing it.  Retro, in some contexts, can be cool.

Adapted from The A&P Professor


Say It Out Loud 18 Times

Want to learn your terminology quickly and easily?  In a recent post, I told you that one way to do that is to work on six new words every day.  My friend Jane, the foreign language professor, gave me another tip to help learn new terminology: say each new term out loud at least 18 times.

Apparently, there's evidence suggesting that to "own" a new word, you have to say it out loud at least 18 times.  The vocalization, along with the repetition, apparently help to reinforce memories in the various language areas in your brain.  Which means that you can recall and use the terms easily.

I know that seems silly . . . even childish.  But think about it.  Silly as it may seem, isn't it worth reducing your study time and improving your knowledge quickly?

Adapted from a post at The A&P Student

What Is an Eponym?

In professional terminology, an eponym is a term that is based upon a proper name.
epo- upon, -nym name
For example, the term Parkinson disease is a term that includes the proper name of the physician James Parkinson, who is credited with first describing the condition in detail. Another example is the loop of Henle, which is a kidney tubule segment named after the German anatomist who discovered it—Friedrich Henle.

As these examples imply, eponyms are often based on the name of the discoverer of the condition, process, or structure represented by the term.

But sometimes, eponyms are instead based on the name of a patient with the condition represented.  For example, the Duffy blood group was named for the first patient in which this antigen was identified.  I guess that was before HIPAA and its strict restrictions on revealing patient names!

Similarly, Legionnaires disease was named after the participants in an American Legion convention where an early outbreak of the condition occurred.

The wonderful thing about eponyms is that they get us thinking about the history of medical science—who the important characters were and how discoveries were made.  But the downside of eponyms is that history and fascinating stories are not very useful in the moment we need to use them.

Paul Broca
Because eponyms are terms that tend to obscure, rather than clarify, their practical meaning, they are falling out of favor.  Eponyms are giving way to descriptive terms that more clearly summarize their working definitions. For example, it is far more useful to call a brain region the motor speech area than the Broca area.  The former tells one both its location in the brain (the motor area of the cerebral cortex) and its function. The latter tells you who first described it—a brilliant guy with massive sideburns—which is interesting but not immediately useful.

In health professions, how accurately we communicate is important.  Why? Because even a subtle miscommunication can result in a tragic mistake in providing needed care to patients. So in the end, the shift away from eponyms and toward more descriptive terminology may actually save lives!

In an upcoming post, we'll explore eponyms a bit by focusing on the shift in preferences in eponym usage.  And, as we march on, I'll be telling some of the odd and interesting stories behind the eponyms.

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