Even those who aren't planning to go to medical school would be well-advised to be familiar with Latin-based terminology. Here are some that can come in handy when trying to decipher a prescription.
A Few Latin Medical Abbreviations and Their Meanings
- Rx: This abbreviation, on pharmacy logos everywhere, is the Roman shorthand for Recipe. Pronounced "reh-kee-peh," it's the imperative form of recipere, or "to take," as in, "Take this medication."
- When written with a line above it, c can stand for cum, or "with," another example of shorthand used in prescriptions.
- a.c.: This is short for ante cenam, "before a meal." Conversely, p.c. stands for post cenam, or "after a meal." These directions recall the abbreviations a.m. (ante meridiem, "before noon") and p.m. (post meridiem, "after noon").
- h.s.: This is short for hora somni, or "hour of sleep." For medical instructions, it means something should be done, or treatment given, at bedtime.
- bid: This stands for bis in die, or "twice in one day."
- NPO: Nil per os, or "nothing through the mouth," is an instruction that patients be treated or fed intravenously (intravenous, of course, comes from Latin for "inside the vein").
- up ad lib: short for up ad libidinem ("at pleasure"), this means that a patient is allowed to get up when he or she wishes.
Latin was also handy for anatomists who first formed adjectives for body parts. Instead of "backish" and "fronty," a doctor would say dorsal (from dorsum, or "back") and ventral (from venter, or "belly"). Likewise, nasal (nasus, "nose"), bracchial (bracchium, "arm"), ocular (oculus, "eye"), pectoral (pectus, "chest"), jugular (jugulum, "throat"), lacrimal (lacrima, "tear"), and ovary (ovum, "egg").
Sometimes, such words can be confusing for English-speakers. Oral and aural are often pronounced the same, even though they come from different words, os ("mouth") and auris ("ear"). The Romans, however, would have pronounced the vowels differently, like "oh" and "ow" respectively.
English terms for bones and teeth can come from Latin roots too. Canine teeth are so named because they resemble those of a dog (canis), while incisors, teeth for cutting, get their name from incisus, or "cut." Others are simply the Latin name without any modification. Tibia, for instance, simply means "leg bone."
Latin can make euphemisms so that doctors can refer more politely to taboo body parts. Penis, or "tail," also means "penis" in Latin, while vagina is a "sheath." A general name for the privates is pudendum, literally "thing to be ashamed of," though this term is less common nowadays.
Obviously, a Classics degree isn't necessary to make a trip to the doctor. But knowing some of the Latin sources of medical phrases and names can help patients decipher the most condensed contractions or understand the most long-winded technical terms.