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A-Z of Medical Terminology 2 - Finding your way

Updated on February 19, 2016
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Mohan is a family physician and a Postgraduate Associate Dean working in the UK. He has a keen interest in self-regulated learning.

Whether you are just curious visitor hoping to learn more about those mysterious sounding words Doctors use, or someone who is entering into a clinical or allied profession and want to learn the lingo - you've come to the right place.

Finding your way

Welcome back. In the introductory chapter, we learnt about how almost all medical terminology originates from Greek and Latin roots. We also learnt about how the construction of these words gives us clues to their meaning. Once we understand and remember the prefixes and suffixes, it is actually a doddle to work out what these terminologies mean.

Compared to other technical professions, medical words are easier to pick up once we get past their scary countenance.

Whether you are just curious visitor hoping to learn more about those mysterious sounding words Doctors use, or someone who is entering into a clinical or allied profession and want to learn the lingo - you've come to the right place.

Remember, learning the basic of medical terminology has much more benefits. It helps expand your vocabulary and inculcates a curiosity towards new words as well as the skill of 'working out' what the word means.

In the last chapter we learnt about how these words come together and we also picked up a few of the prefixes that pertain to specific organs. Here we'll talk more about finding your way around the body. Rather than use the common words of front and back, top and bottom- medical parlance uses specific terms to indicate positions.This is no mere snobbery, there is a logic to this. The words define a clear place in the human body so there is no confusion whichever position the body is in.

anatomical positions
anatomical positions

Rather than use the common words such as front and back, top and bottom - medical parlance uses specific terms to indicate positions.This is no mere snobbery, there is a logic to this. The words define a clear place and position in the human body so there is no confusion whichever position the body is in.

Positional Words

The anatomical terms denoting top and bottom of the body (or an individual organ) are superior and inferior. The term for the front and back of the body or an organ are anterior and posterior. Anatomists also use the terms ventral to indicate facing the front and dorsal for that facing the back. And anything towards the head is called cranial and towards the feet is called caudal.

Anything towards the midline is called medial - for example the medial border of the arm is the inner border of your arm when you stand palm facing forward. The lateral border will be the outer border, moving away from the midline.

The proximal aspect of the body is oriented towards the body and the distal aspect is moving away from the body.

This way, the surgeon handling an organ knows exactly which the anterior surface is irrespective of how this organ is oriented. This avoids anatomical confusion. For example of I say to a medical student examine the front of the hand, there could some confusion in semantics. Whereas if I say examine the palmar or the ventral aspect of the hand the student will know exactly which surface to focus on.

One of the very first lessons for a medical student is to learn what these positional terms are. This way when we take medical history, order a test or convey a message to another specialist, we can say exactly what we mean and avoid confusion.

Anatomical orientation
Anatomical orientation

Descriptive Terms

In order to understand a lot of medical terminology, familiarising with common descriptive prefixes and suffixes will make life a lot easier.

While the list is long, many of the roots here will be familiar as they are used in normal parlance.

For example we all know the numerical prefixes of uni - bi- tri- quadri ( one, two, three, four) in Latin and their Greek equivalents mono- di- tri- tetra .

In medicine these same numerical adjectives are used. The muscle at the front of your upper arm is called biceps simply because it has two distinct 'bellies' whereas the one on the back of our upper arm is called triceps because it has three segments. If you then move to the front of your thigh, we have the quadriceps muscle by the same logic.

If something is mononuclear it is because it has one nucleus. Diplopia is the medical term for double vision. while the Triscuspid valve is a valve with three 'leaves' inside our heart.

You will be familiar with the Hypodermic needle. The prefix hypo- means under or below. If you remember that dermis means skin then you know that hypodermic is something that goes under- penetrates the skin. The prefix hypo- is used to denote anything that is below par. Hypotension is low blood pressure; Hypoxia is when oxygen saturation drops.

Supra- means above or higher ( superior) . So when talking about anything above the Eyesocket (orbit) the doctor will say supraorbital. Infra, the opposite, means below or inferior. So an infrascapular artery will be something below the scapula ( shoulder blade)

The table below is a reference for prefixes and suffixes used as similar positional and descriptive adjectives.

Descriptive & Positional Terms

a-, an-
Greek : without
Anemia, Analgesia
Greek: others
Allograft, Allopathy
Greek: both sides, on either side
Ambidextrous , Ambiguous
Greek: Crooked, bent
Greek: in front
Greek: self
Greek: double
Bicuspid ( valve)
Greek: slow
Bradycardia ( slow heart beat)
- cide
Latin: killing, destroying
Bacteriocide, Genocide
Latin: around
Circumcision ( cut around)
Latin- together
Latin- against
Greek: binding, fusing
Arthrodesis ( fusing a joint)
Latin- two, double
Diplopia ( double vision)
Latin- spearate
Dissect, Disengage
Latin- pertaining to the back
Dorsal fin
Greek: outside
Ectopic pregnancy
Greek: inside
Greek: on, upon, outside of
Epithelium, Epidermis
Greek: one half
Greek: similar, same
homogenous, homosexual
Greek: above normal
Hypertension ( high BP) , Hyperhidrosis ( excessive sweating)
Greek: below, below normal
Hypotension, Hypodermic
Latin: below
Latin: between
Intercostal ( between the ribs)
Latin: within
Latero-, Lateral
Latin: lateral, towards the flank
Lateral epicondyle
Greek: large, big
Greek: small
Greek: after, behind
Greek: new
Greek: normal
Greek: looks like, resembles
Sarcoid, Adenoid
Greek: alongside
Greek: deficiency
Osteopenia, Neutropenia
Latin: through
Greek: surrounding
Greek: production
Latin: four
Latin: behind
Greek: short, narrow
Latin: beneath, below
Latin: above
Greek: fast
Tachycardia ( fast heartbeat)
Greek: across
Latin: three
Latin: belly, front
Greek: stranger, foreigner
xenograft, xenophobia
Greek: dry
xerostomia (dry mouth)
A list of Medical Terms for positions ( Medical Etymology)


I am sure there is plenty to ponder from the above list. It is useful to familiarise with these terms before we move on to the next chapter. So if you think you're getting away lightly think again. There's a nifty little quiz for your homework and revision.

Let's see how you get on.

Finding Your Way : Medical Terminology

view quiz statistics
Surface anatomy
Surface anatomy
Surface anatomy
Surface anatomy
Surface anatomy
Surface anatomy

Lines and Landmarks

In addition to the terms above, a Doctor uses imaginary surface lines to indicate location. These lines have been generally agreed upon and are positioned using visible and easily locatable landmark.

If you imagine how the Earth is divided into longitudes and latitudes but these lines don't really exist physically, you get the picture.

In our front, we have the midsternal line going right through the middle and is called so as it runs down the centre of the chest from the sternal bone. The two collar bones are called clavicles and hence a line running through the middle of them on either side are called the right mid-clavicular line and the left mid-clavicular line.

If you take a side view, a line running in the front end of the armpits will be the anterior axillary line and the one at the back the posterior axillary line. Running through the middle will be the mid-axillary line.

In addition to this, the abdomen is also divided into four or nine distinct regions to help clinicians communicate accurately to each other regarding positions of organs and growths.

Abdominal Regions
Abdominal Regions

Onwards and upwards...

I am sure there is plenty to go on in this chapter. In the next chapter, we will rejoin the rest of the organ names we left off in chapter one. You'll then find it easier to spot your -ologist.

We will also look at surgical terminology. this way you'll soon catch up on the difference between your -otomy and your -ectomy, between a -rraphy and -plasty.

Hope you found this useful and comprehensible.


Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2013

Thank You!

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

Please leave some comments below as it is nice to know what you think. If you like this and think others will too, do share on Facebook, Twitter, Google + or Pinterest or other sites using the buttons below and please don't forget to vote .

Do visit often and read the other hubs if you like the writing. There's plenty to entertain you!


Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2013


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    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      3 years ago from UK

      Glad to be of help, Mary and all the very best with your studies. This is part 2 and hope you got a chance to look up part 1. You may have inspired me to write part 3!

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I am beginning nursing school in the fall and wanted to learn some medical terms and general info so I would be on top of my classes, WOW, this is amazing, I feel I'll be more than ready when my classes begin!! THANKS A MILLION FOR THIS!!

    • Aelbarsha profile image

      Abdelhakim Elbarsha 

      4 years ago from Benghazi/Libya

      Excellent terminology introduction! Very helpful for those who struggle reading medical articles bolstered with those terms.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      I felt like I was back in class listening to an anatomy lecture, Mohan, only this time I was not falling asleep. Bravo, my friend. You do know how to make a subject interesting.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is a great review for me as I haven't worked as a nurse for a dozen years now. A very informative hub. Rated up!

    • ARUN KANTI profile image


      7 years ago from KOLKATA

      I am confused when my cardiologist finally diagnosed ASYMETRICAL SEPTAL HYPERTROPHY and SINGLE VESSEL CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE ruling out any scope of ANGIOPLASTY and prescribing instead a few oral medicines. Thank you for the great hub.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      This is wonderful Doc, we always get muddled up with all the 'Doctor speak' if you know what I mean, I took the quiz and even after reading just got 60 percent, need to read again! lol!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      Where were you when I was taking the First Responders Course? BTW, I scored 100 on your quiz.

      This is really great. It will help many understand what is being talked about when they go to the doctor or hospital. Thank you.

      Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      7 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Doc. you are doing a wonderful service here. I wish i'd had this when i was in training. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us...

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 

      7 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      This is great Docmo! It will be a good reference point to retain on HP. I missed the first chapter but will visit soon. I wish I had understood all this when my then days old daughter was diagnosed with a "ventral septal defect." But it was repaired when she was 17 months old and she is now 24 and healthy. A good heart doc named Cobanaglu operated.


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