Building a Medical Vocabulary

“Education isn’t something you’ve had; it is something you’re always getting.”



When you have completed this chapter on building a medical vocabulary, you should be able to

1. Define medical terminology.
2. Define word elements, roots, combining forms, suffixes, and prefixes.
3. Create the singular and plural forms of commonly used medical terms.
4. Identify homonyms, eponyms, and other confusing terms used in medical reports.
5. Use a medical dictionary.
6. Identify and spell the word elements and determine their meaning.


A medical vocabulary is the heart of a career in the allied health fields. It provides the means by which all individuals concerned with patient health care issues can share information. Whether in a one-physician office, a major clinic, or a centralized laboratory, a behind-the-scenes health care team provides a variety of services. A list follows of some of those representative health care positions identified in the Occupational Outlook Handbook:

Representative Health Care Positions

admissions clerk  echocardiograph technician
cancer registrar health information management
cardiovascular technologist technician
clinical laboratory technician histologist
coding specialist  licensed practical nurse
CT technologist medical and health services manager
 medical transcriptionist  phlebotomist
 MRI technologist  physical therapist
 nurse practitioner  physician’s assistant
 occupational therapist  psychologist
office manager  radiographer
paramedic registered nurse
pharmacist respiratory therapy technician
pharmacy aide ultrasound technician
pharmacy technician

  Educational requirements for these positions may vary considerably, but the one requirement that cuts across all of these positions is the ability to understand medical terminology.
What is medical vocabulary or terminology? It is the collection of all of the terms used by physicians, scientists, and other medical personnel to describe their work in the allied health field. The collection, or language, of medical terminology is more extensive than that of many other technical specialties. And like all languages, it is constantly changing. Progress in science and technology continually contributes new words—and occasionally makes some obsolete. Advances in the use of lasers, nuclear medicine, noninvasive radiology, and computer technology have led to the addition of words that did not even exist just a few years ago.
Medical terminology consists of four major elements. Each of these elements will be addressed in this text.

Roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Medical terminology begins with a thorough understanding of roots, prefixes, and suffixes—referred to in this text as word elements— and how they can be combined in a variety of ways to create medical words. This includes knowing how to join the word elements to form medical terms; recognizing the difference between the adjective and noun form of a term; knowing the singular and plural form of a term; and knowing how to use eponyms and homonyms.

Anatomical terms.

Because body parts frequently are referred to in the medical work environment, members of the health care team should be familiar with at least the most commonly used anatomical terms. Understanding how the systems of the body function helps to make sense of medical terms. Basic body structure is presented in next Article ; more detailed anatomy and associated terminology with each body system appears in subsequent Articles.

Regular words with specialized medical meanings.

Some familiar, everyday words or phrases may actually have a special, even formal, medical meaning. For instance, the “thrill” noted in a medical report refers to a vibration felt when the hand is placed on the body, not the feeling you get when you win a prize. In other cases,  informal regional and institutional terms have arisen that are not covered in medical  reference books. These are learned as needed on the job. You will be introduced to some of the ordinary words with specialized medical meanings in the Listening Activities and other Article-end activities.

Diagnostic procedures, diagnoses, and treatment procedures, including medications.

Physicians record the names and results of diagnostic procedures that they order. These, as well as the resulting diagnoses, treatment procedures, and medications, must be recorded accurately. It is also helpful to know metric measures and abbreviations.  The knowledge you gain from this course of study will not only prepare you  for a career in the allied health field but will also enable you to become an informed  user of medical services, allowing you to make more intelligent choices about your personal health care.

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