Medical Latin

It’s easy to assume that the Latin used in Dutch medical texts will be the same in English, but this is in fact often not the case. Abbreviations in particular can be incomprehensible to English speakers, even doctors.

The only Latin that really remains in medical English is the names for the bones: tibia, fibula, scapula, sternum and so forth are correct. Pretty much everything else should be anglicized and abbreviations expanded (or equivalents found). Common culprits are:

  • m. or musculus: m. obliquus externus abdominalis => external oblique abdominal muscle
  • m. or morbus: m. Bechterew = Bechterew’s disease => ankylosing spondylitis
  • n. or nervus: n. tibialis => tibial nerve
  • a. or arteria: a. mesenterica inferior => inferior mesenteric artery
  • p.o. (per os) => by mouth
  • p.r.n. (pro re nata) => as needed
  • q.d. (quaqua die) => daily, per day
  • …and many, many more

The Latin itself quite often gets botched as well, by the way. If you’re a purist. Plural and genitive forms regularly get mangled. So much for my O-level…

Prevalence: moderate. Restricted to particular types of document, of course. Medical reports, prescriptions, medical insurance claims, pharmaceutical texts, and so forth.
Frequency: very high. My heart sinks when I come across the first such issue because it’s not uncommon for there to be dozens more.
Native: no. Even the medics won’t know what’s going on in some obscure cases. So leave alone and hope isn’t a valid option.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

4 thoughts on “Medical Latin

  1. I beg to differ slightly: PRN, QD are abbreviations that are typically only used in the UK; I learned them while working as a doctor in an English hospital, and did not know them before after studying medicine in the Netherlands and working a year in a Dutch hospital. In Dutch we would write zn (zo nodig) and 1dd1 (once a day)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll bow to your expert knowledge on those specific cases then… though I certainly remember an American client getting well confused by them in a document translated from Dutch.

      If you’ve got any examples yourself, I’ll be happy to put them in instead.


      1. In NHS medical files, which at the time (1995-1996) were still being written on paper, doctors used a number of ways to indicate dosage in shorthand. The commonest were OD, BID, TID and QDS for one, two, three, four times a day. all initially unknown to me then. Also a curious abbreviation for tablet: a capital T with a dot on top, two tablets was an amalgam of two of these symbols: a horizontal bar with two dots above it and two vertical lines below it. Our Dutch shorthand is 1dd1, 2dd1, 3dd2 for 1 tablet (capsule/unit) a day, 2 tablets a day, 2 tablets three times a day, respectively. Of course in translations meant for the general public (or for the patient), there is nothing wrong with one tablet three times a day, indeed that would be preferable. I imagine that the T-dot tablet code has fallen by the wayside with increasing computerization.


    2. I’m familiar with the normal Dutch forms, of course, but that weird tablet symbol is entirely new to me… Not that they belong in a post about medical Latin. (But the “1dd2” usage itself is worth a post on its own – often left as-is by Dutch writers and translators.)

      I checked the two you didn’t agree with, by the way, Bart. One of them turned up several times in a series of back-translations (so it’s possible they were put in the Dutch by a ropey translation) and the other in Belgian texts (maybe the usage is different there? or again maybe a non-native Dutch writer).


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