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A-Z of Medical Terminology 1: Know Your Roots

Mohan is a family physician and a postgraduate associate dean working in the UK. He has a keen interest in self-regulated learning.


Medical Terminology

Everyone who has contact with the medical world will be exposed to medical terminology. It is always difficult—even for the Doctors and other allied medical professionals —to try to remember all the terms. Although most of these terms have their origins in the Greek and Latin, the professional language of medicine is a hard one to crack. It is simply like learning a new language with a whole new vocabulary.

Be it a diagnosis, an examination or an investigation the results and reports are awash with strange looking words that bring on anxiety and a quick scramble to a Medical Dictionary.

Whether you are a curious patient. a puzzled student, a transcription worker or a seasoned medical professional, learning the simple rules of engagement with medical terminology will reap rewards. So let me help you by taking you through the labyrinth of the human body, through the language of the ancients.

Soon you'll know your Endocarditis from your Pericarditis, Your Echocardiogram from your Electroencephalogram, your Osteoporosis from your Osteomalacia and your Myalgia from your Myositis.

Trust me. ( I'm a..!)


Be Informed

You may ask yourself why you need to learn such words. You may wonder whether you would be able to learn what Doctors and Nurses learn after many years of studying and practising. You may have better things to do than to pore over a bunch of Greek and Latin roots.

Firstly whatever profession we are in, whatever our background, it is good to be well informed. It is good to know there are subtle differences between diseases or organs that may sound alike and the untrained ear may mistake one for the other. I know a lot of patients who had mistaken one disease for another after reading some poorly written information on the internet or in a news magazine. This leads to confusion and anxiety.

It is also well known that not all medical professionals take the time to explain and inform clearly. We then rely on family, friends and outside sources to search for further information. When you do so you need to be armed with an accurate understanding of what you are searching for. A wrong pursuit can lead to much heartache.

If you are in an allied profession dealing with medical transcription, dictations, typing letters etc. you may have received brief training and maybe constantly seeking the help of a medical dictionary. Wouldn't you want to be able to 'work out' what a medical term means?

For this article is not just about learning and memorizing but about being able to logically work out what a term means by simple methods of understanding the roots.


Then there are simple rules that apply in combining these together to form a word. For examples when a prefix ends in the vowel 'o' and the suffix begins with a vowel - you drop the 'o' when combing the two. Whereas if the prefix ends in an 'a' then you add a 't' between the vowels.

The Tricks of the Trade

Unlike other technical languages ( like in engineering, physics or IT) medical terminology has a logical reasoning behind it. Firstly there are the Greek and Latin roots for the various body parts and the organs. Then we have the roots that signify a disease process, a descriptor ( colour, position, size), a test or an intervention coming from the same Greek and Latin.

Then there are simple rules that apply in combining these together to form a word. For examples when a prefix ends in a vowel and the suffix begins with a vowel- you drop one when combing the two.

A simple sore throat in medical parlance is called Pharyngitis. Pharynx is the name for throat and anything pertaining to the throat begins with the prefix Pharyngo. The suffix -itis always means inflammation. Put these two together and you get Pharyngitis.

Once you know -itis means inflammation you can go on a spree by combing any root with it that will signify inflammation of the said organ or tissue.

Arthro( joint) + itis = Arthritis - Inflammation of the joints

Rhino(nose) + itis = Rhinitis - inflammation of the nose

Masto (breast) + itis = Mastitis - inflammation of the breast

Gastro ( stomach) + itis = Gastritis - inflammation of the stomach

However, if the prefix ends in an a, you add a 't' between the vowels

Derma (skin) + itis = Dermatitis - inflammation of the skin

Stoma (mouth) + itis = Stomatitis - inflammation of the mouth

Easy, no?

Signs of Inflammation

Signs of inflammation - Rubor ( redness) , Calor ( heat), Tumor ( swelling), Dolor ( pain) and Functiolacea ( loss of function)

Signs of inflammation - Rubor ( redness) , Calor ( heat), Tumor ( swelling), Dolor ( pain) and Functiolacea ( loss of function)


The pleasant 'side effect' of learning these roots is that it not only expands your knowledge of medical words but boosts your vocabulary much much more. Even in non-medical terms. It is said that expanding vocabulary does expand the mind.

It's all Greek and Latin

The art and science of Medical terminology is to first know your roots. When I look at a word in the medical parlance, my brain automatically breaks the word down into the component roots and the prefix/ suffix. As by now my memory of these fundamental components is well established, even when I encounter an unfamiliar word, I am able to make a reasonable 'guesstimate' of the meaning. More often than not, I am right.

In this chapter we will concentrate on familiarizing with the root Greek and Latin terms for the individual organs that form bulk of the vocabulary needed to establish a grounding. The organs usually have a Greek or a Latin root ( and in some cases both - for example the Kidney can be represented by both Nephro- (Gr.) and Reno - (Lat.).

For example a medical consultant specialising in kidney disorders is called a Nephrologist.

while a blood test that measures the how a Kidney is functioning will be called a Renal function test.

The pleasant 'side effect' of learning these roots is that it not only expands your knowledge of medical words but boosts your vocabulary much much more even in non-medical terms. It is said that expanding vocabulary does expand the mid much, much more.

There is a strong sense of origin with the respective Greek and Latin roots. Greek roots usually go with Greek suffixes and prefixes and the same rule applies for the Latin roots. Mixing your roots and prefixes/suffixes up is not considered a good idea.

Also unlike in English, the Greek and Latin roots do not stand up on their own and often need assistance. The Greek root for the lungs is pneumon- and the Latin root is pulmon(o) which gives us pneumonia and pulmonary embolism respectively.


The Organ Grinder

As a starter for ten, it will be worth familiarising with the root names for the individual organs and tissues of the human body. I'll give the Greek and Latin roots where applicable and also illustrate with some example usage.


List of Organs & Tissues: A-F

OrganGreek RootLatin RootUsage Examples




Laporotomy, Abdominal pain




Aortic Stenosis




Brachial Artery




Axillary hair








Dorsal Fin




Cystitis, Intravesical


Haemat (o)-, Hemat(o)-, Haem(o)-, Hem(o)-

Sanguin(o)- , Sangui-

Haemoglobin, Sanguine

Blood clot




Blood vessel


Vascul- , Vas-

Angiogram, Vasculitis


Somat(o)- Som-


Psycho-Somatic, ExtraCorporeal




Osteoarthritis, Ossification

Bone Marrow







Encephalitis, Cerebrovascular Accidents.




Mastitis, Mammography








Otoscope, Aural

Eggs, Ova



Oocyte, Ovary




Ophthalmology, Oculogyric crisis




Blepharitis, Palpebral fissure.




Prosopagnosia, Facial Nerve

Fallopian Tubes







Lipoma, Adipose Tissue




Polydactyly, Interdigital folds




Frontal Lobe

Anatomical Drawings by Andreas Vesalius

Anatomical Drawings by Andreas Vesalius

Although there are some exceptions to the rule, most of these words will be familiar to us and you wouldn't have to really think about the modifier as the word would have already registered in our minds from previous encounters.


From the initial list above there probably were already terms you could recognize and recapitulate. As we register these roots in our memory centers slowly we make meanings and links.

From the above examples we can already see a pattern emerging. In English the organ names can stand alone. So if we want to say 'Eye Pain ' we can say just that without having to modify the word eye.

However in Greek and Latin, as the roots normally end in a vowel, they require modifiers.

So for pain in the abdomen we do not say abdomino - pain, instead we add the modifier -al and make it Abdominal pain.

A lot of Latin roots take the modifier -al :

Cerebral - pertaining to the brain

Coporal - pertaining to the body

Facial - pertaining to the face

Digital - Pertaining to the fingers

Palpebral - Pertaining to the eyelid

Vesical - pertaining to the bladder

While some others take -ar or -ary:

Mammary - pertaining to the breast

Ocular - pertaining to the eye

Vascular - pertaining to the blood vessel

Many Greek Roots instead go for the -ic modifier:

Ophthalmic - pertaining ot the eye

Somatic - pertaining to the body

Otic - pertaining to the ear

Encephalic- Pertaining to the Brain

Although there are some exceptions to the rule, most of these words will be familiar to us and you wouldn't have to really think about the modifier as the word would have already registered in our minds from previous encounters.


Baby Steps

I will end my first chapter here. There is plenty to go on. This gives us time to think, assimilate and recall roots and rules, reflect on the usage and revisit familiar words with a new focus. Hope this has been a useful introduction to the world of medical terminology.

As with learning anything new, while on surface it looks daunting, the more you analyse and deconstruct these terms the easier it becomes. In the next chapter we will look at the next list of organs and also look at position descriptors. this way you will know Endo- means inside and Ecto- outside, Para- means by the side and Peri- means around etc. Once again these are not unfamilair terms as they are also used as prefixes in other non-medical words.

I'll be back soon.

But wait, If you thought you were getting away lightly from doing some homework, think again!


Medical Terminology Quiz 1 : Find the Right word to fill in the blanks

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. When I had trouble with my eyes, My Doctor referred me to an -------------
    • Nephrologist
    • Otorhinolaryngologist
    • Opthalmologist
  2. Physical symptoms that occur in the body due to psychological stresses are called --------
    • Psychotrophic
    • Psychosomatic
    • Psychotic
  3. Inflammation of the ear is called --------
    • Vasculitis
    • Rhinitis
    • Otitis
  4. Getting a blood clot is also known as ------------
    • Thrombosis
    • Sclerosis
    • Fibrosis
  5. If a person has Encephalitis they suffer from inflammation of -----
    • Tongue
    • Head
    • Brain
  6. The Mammary Glands are also known as ---------
    • Breasts
    • Tonsils
    • Thyroid
  7. Osteoporosis is thinning of the ----------
    • Hair
    • Skin
    • Bone
  8. A Stethoscope is used to listen to the ---------
    • Stomach
    • Chest
    • Bladder
  9. I applied the deodorant stick to both my ---------
    • Axillae
    • Pupils
    • Brachial
  10. A Lipoma is a lump made of -----------
    • Muscle
    • Fat
    • Skin

Answer Key

  1. Opthalmologist
  2. Psychosomatic
  3. Otitis
  4. Thrombosis
  5. Brain
  6. Breasts
  7. Bone
  8. Chest
  9. Axillae
  10. Fat

Thank You!

Thank you for your time and hope you enjoyed this article.

Please leave some comments below as it is nice to know what you think. Do visit often and read the other article if you like the writing. There's plenty to entertain you!

Medical Terminology

© 2012 Mohan Kumar


Mary on July 27, 2020:

Love the quiz

Christina Garvis from United States on July 30, 2018:

I found this very helpful and educational. Thank you!

Flores12 on May 17, 2018:

How about a hub listing all the "ologist" professions and their purposes­­­­ᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵc­­­­­a­­­­­s­­­­­h­­­­­s­­­­­t­­­­­a­­­­­r­­­­­2­­­­­.­­ℂ­­ℴ­­ℳ­­­­ᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵᴵ

Lessie Deberry on December 27, 2017:

I am taking medical terminology online, this would be a help to me.

ChristinaPalmer on October 20, 2017:

Thank - you great refresher!

Jean Bosco Nk. on June 02, 2017:


Christine on February 21, 2015:

great information!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on September 21, 2014:

Thank you Delone, hope you like part 2 of this series too.

Delone Bowes on September 18, 2014:

I am in the middle of taking medical terminology online, and I found this to be VERY helpful! Thank you. :)

Terry from NJ on September 08, 2013:

Thank you for writing this incredible information

Brook Ryder on January 10, 2013:

I decided to look up some medical terminology concidering Im getting ready to enroll to school for Healthcare Information Technology. To my surprise I took the quiz and did well !! It was great to get a heads up on some of the information I will be obtaining in school ! Thanks

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on August 06, 2012:

Well done doc! I knew quite a few of these, yet I learned a few more. How about a hub listing all the "ologist" professions and their purposes. Consider that a challenge. I've got a thing or two to say to a few "ologist's":)

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on April 30, 2012:

@Carolyn- thanks very much for letting me know- for some reason the answers had all defaulted to the first one so almost 80% were wrong. I did check them initially - must be an editorial bug!

Carolyn on April 30, 2012:

An eye doctor is an ophthalmologist

A nephrologist is kidney doctor, check the answers

to your medical terminology quiz

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on March 02, 2012:

@Ruby, thank you my friend.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on February 29, 2012:

This is great! I felt like i was back in anatomy 101..No kidding, this is a very educational hub. Thank you for sharing Doc.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:

@drbj- I really value your comment - I see the doctor- patient relationship as a great partnership that can be used constructively and collaboratively- you are right about some doctors not quite getting the concept of an informed patient- they do need an Enema -- because( pardonnez moi mon Francaise) they're fullo' sh#€!! Appreciate your visit drbj - I keep hankering for your 'pun'ditry.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:

@Aliciac - much thanks for your vist!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:

@ Amy - working in medical education I try ny best to instil patient centred care in my budding professionals - there are a lot of clinicians still who feel a well informed patient is a threat- I on the other hand think different- the actual threat to both parties is an ill- informed patient ! I try my best to educate and entertain - I am thrilled you consider my efforts special!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:

@ mackyi- I never regret spending the time to put a quality hub together as I feel it should reward the reader for their precious time. Glad you found this a good effort- thank you!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:

@sofs- you certainly will be well equipped to get back at your son with plenty of new information by the time these hubs are done. Thanks for the visit and comment- always appreciated!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:

@Ll Woodard- really pleased that you found this useful - appreciate the comments and the share. Thanks!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on February 29, 2012:

What a great idea, Docmo, to acquaint present and potential patients with the meaning of terms their physicians may use. I know some doctors, unfortunately, who may not agree with the concept of an informed patient. But they are in the minority and still believe that knowledge is their enema, er .... enemy.

Thanks for the excellent information presented in such an entertaining fashion.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 28, 2012:

Thank you for an interesting hub and an entertaining video, Docmo!

Amy Becherer from St. Louis, MO on February 28, 2012:

I wish the gastroenterologist I see didn't respond to my questions as a personal affront. The last time I saw him for an office visit, he had a young intern accompanying him. Since his diagnosis remains mysterious, I asked the specialist if the blood work he'd ordered or had done in the past included testing for Whipples or Behcet's, since I have autoimmune disease and some of the symptoms match. In a condescending attempt to pacify me, he brushed me off with "stop thinking so much. It will only get you in trouble." Several years ago, in an attempt for a definitive diagnosis, I sought a second opinion from a renown local hospital and was told by the doctor, "You don't need to know why you are experiencing your symptoms. Since your meds are helping, smile, go home and take them." I have gotten to the point of being discriminate with my vocabulary so I am not (like the Seinfeld episode)charted as a "difficult" patient. For all the high-cost of medical insurance in the States, I resent being treated like an idiot.

Great read, Docmo, and I wish there were more physicians of your uniquely high intellect, inquiring mind and sincere regard for patients. You are one in a million.

mackyi on February 28, 2012:

Quite a bit of useful information you have here my friend. I know you must have spent an awful amount of your time preparing this hub, but I tell you what -- it worth all the effort! Many people certainly will be using this as a mini reference. Great hub. Voted up useful!

Sophie on February 27, 2012:

This was fun learning... my son keeps teaching me all the time.. and here I can get back at him! Thanks for sharing this Doc! Have a lovely day!

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on February 27, 2012:

You've provided lots of useful and easy-to-understand information. This should help take some of the mystery out of health care appointments and information.

Voted up and SHARED.