The Jargon of Anatomy - dummies

By Maggie Norris, Donna Rae Siegfried

Jargon is a set of words and phrases that people who know a lot about a particular subject use to talk together. Anatomists and physiologists use jargon, much of which is shared with medicine and other fields of biology, especially human biology.

Scientists try to create terminology that’s precise and easy to understand by developing it systematically. That is, they create new words by putting together existing and known elements. They use certain syllables or word fragments over and over to build new terms.

You’ll soon start to recognize some of these fragments. Then you can put the meanings of different fragments together and accurately guess the meaning of a term you’ve never seen before, just as you can understand a sentence you’ve never read before. This table gets you started, listing some word fragments related to the organ systems.

Body System Root or Word Fragment Meaning
Technical Anatomical Word Fragments
Skeletal system os-, oste-; arth- bone; joint
Muscular system myo-, sarco- muscle, striated muscle
Integument derm- skin
Nervous system neur- nerve
Endocrine system aden-, estr- gland, steroid
Cardiovascular system card-, angi-, hema-, vaso- heart (muscle), vessel, blood vessels
Respiratory system pulmon-, bronch- lung, windpipe
Digestive system gastr-, enter-, dent-, hepat- stomach, intestine, teeth, liver
Urinary system ren-, neph-; ur- kidney; urinary
Lymphatic system lymph-, leuk-, -itis lymph, white, inflammation
Reproductive system andr-, uter- male, uterine

But why do these terms have to be Latin and Greek syllables and word fragments? Why should you have to dissect and put back together a term like iliohypogastric? Well, the terms that people use in common speech are understood slightly differently by different people, and the meanings are always undergoing change.

Not so long ago, for example, no one speaking plain English used the term laptop to refer to a computer or hybrid to talk about a car. It’s possible that, not many years from now, almost no one will understand what people mean by those words.

Scientists, however, require consistency and preciseness to describe the things they talk about in a scientific context. The relative vagueness and changeability of terms in plain English makes this impossible. In contrast, Greek and Latin stopped changing centuries ago: ilio, hypo, and gastro have the same meaning now as they did 200 years ago.

Every time you come across an anatomical or physiological term that’s new to you, see if you recognize any parts of it. Using this knowledge, go as far as you can in guessing the meaning of the whole term.