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The Secrets of Medical Jargon

By Lawrence B. Erlich, M.D. - Email:

You probably think that doctors speak English. For that matter, you probably think that lawyers speak English. And you are almost correct. Both professions actually speak their own dialect of English and at times the dialect is incomprensible to anyone out of the profession.

I can't talk about legal jargon, since I am not a lawyer, but I can talk about medical jargon, and it is not at all unusual for a doctor try to say something from the witness stand only to find that judge and a jury understand it to have the opposite meaning from what he intended. This extends not only to technical language, but also to ordinarily three and four letter words. For example:

If a doctor say that a patient "admits" to something, he does not mean that the person previously tried to deny it. Used in that way, "admit" just means "said." Far more confusing is the statement, "I don't know that is true." That statement sounds like a vague and courteous contradiction of what you just said, but to a doctor it means, "It is not true, nobody thinks that it is true, there is no evidence in the literature that it is true, and anyone who could possibly think that it is true is a complete idiot." In other words, them's fighting words to a doctor, but it sounds like anything but that to a layman.