Have you ever wondered about the abbreviations on a prescription you've been given? Obviously you can't expect to be able to read the doctor's signature, but why not the rest? The answer is that a lot of these arcane jottings are Latin — holdovers from the distant past. It was Latin in which until a hundred or so years ago many educated people conversed ("philosophers" like Stephen Maturin in the O'Brian novels).

Some notations are pretty obscure, but the "s. i. d." (semel in die), "t. i. d." (ter in die), "ad lib." (ad libitum), "p.r.n" (pro re nata)* and some others are likely more common. I suppose these are still in use because doctors, nurses and pharmacists are all used to them and a conversion to English might do more harm than good. Of course, it might just be that the users rather like having a secret code to perplex the layman. "Quant. suff." (self-explanatory) is what you say to yourself when you put just enough vermouth into your Martini — or just enough Martini into yourself.

Somewhere years ago I read that "Calor, dolor, rubor, and tumor" were supposed to indicate disease. I looked it up, and found that as long ago as the first century A.D. a Roman encyclopedist called Celsus recorded these as the four classical signs of inflammation ("heat, pain, redness and swelling").

These Latin words (or something derived from them — "calorie," "dolorous," "rubicund," "tumor") are all currently in use. While there are vast numbers of words with Latin roots, and actual Latin words carried over into English and the Romance languages (such as French, Italian, Spanish, etc.), we need only look at medical terms to see what an effect Latin has had. For starters, we can add to the above nouns at least sudor, torpor, humor, rigor, frigor, stupor and pallor. "Doctor" too is Latin, the exact word meaning, interestingly enough, "teacher."

Having in mind that doctors use Latin to make (or at least with the effect of making) their prescriptions incomprehensible to the ordinary mortal, it might be amusing to challenge them. The next time you go for your physical, how about saying, "Well, Doc, when I work out I seem to generate calor and sudor followed by frigor, and the other night I experienced stupor followed by torpor. It may have been what I had to drink since the following morning I noticed dolor and pallor." "A little learning is a dangerous thing," (s)he will reply, administering your shot with extra vigor.

There are lots more Latin words describing bodily conditions and functions. The terms "salivation, urination, digestion, defecation, regurgitation, constipation, and palpitation" are in regular use and will be familiar to almost everyone.

The following terms are more obscure. I suppose a medical education requires the student to learn all these, but it might be interesting to know how current they are. To paraphrase what the lieutenant in the mid-19th century cartoon said about cavalry in warfare, these terms might "lend class to what might otherwise be a mere vulgar description."

Do you know or can you guess these gems? (Just to keep you alert, there are a couple of non-medical "-ions" thrown in.) Micturition, parturition, eructation, defalcation, ejaculation, decapitation, exsanguination, peregrination and sternutation. They have a nice ring to them, don't you think?

You could try them out on your "health professional" to keep him (her) on his (her) toes. You may feel timid about doing this — maybe even torpid, tepid, torrid, tumid or turgid — but very likely not tabid. Just don't forget to learn them yourself first.

* once a day, three times a day, as you want, as situation requires.


Jonathan Wells of Newbury can be contacted with comments at Jon3sticks@aolL.com.

Trending Video

Recommended for you