Dr Peter Moore: I could try to use Latin or Greek to sound clever but I’m not sure it would work

I don’t think the Redcliffe Hotel in Paignton is about to change its name to the Erythematous Cliff

I don’t think the Redcliffe Hotel in Paignton is about to change its name to the Erythematous Cliff Hotel any time soon - Credit: Archant

How can you sound intelligent? The trick doctors have used over the centuries is, inter alia, to speak Latin or Greek et cetera.

It was probably not until the early 20th century that doctors did more good than harm or magis nocere quam bonum but using Latin impressed the patients.

Now Dame Mary Beard, the Oxford Professor of Classics, has criticised people who use Latin or Greek to sound intelligent. It puts off people from less privileged backgrounds from studying the classics. It is a good thing that none of our politicians would try this.

I have never studied the classics but I have used the medical trick of using Latin or Greek.

Looking at a rash and commenting ‘it’s erythematous’ sounds much more impressive than ‘it’s a bit red’. And many common medical words have surprising origins.

Have you ever been to a hospital as a patient attending a clinic to see a doctor? I remember hearing a colleague having a ‘free and frank’ discussion with a hospital manager. He was trying to admit a patient but the manager insisted this was a social problem.

“If you won’t accept social problems you should be called an infirmary not a hospital”.

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The word infirmary is hardly used but the old name for Torbay Hospital when it was in Union Street was Torbay Infirmary. The word hospital comes from the Latin for guest or stranger, which is why we have the hospitality industry and hospitable hotels. Early hospitals cared for strangers. Ill people went to the infirmary. Although my colleague was technically correct, I am not sure his definition of a hospital applies today.

The literal meaning of ‘patient’ is sufferer, which is probably appropriate. It is certainly better than colleagues who use the word ‘client’ believing it is less paternalistic.

Client is from the Latin cleintern, a retainer or follower. It has the same stem as incline; someone who leans on another. In the Middle Ages a client was a peasant under the protection of a Lord; far more paternalistic than patient.

Some words now have a opposite meaning. A clinic is the one part of a hospital where patients are not in bed, but the word comes from Greek kline meaning bed. In the 19th century a clinic was a ward round. Clinical care was the bedside care of the sick.

And doctors are not people to see when you are ill. Technically the word doctor means teacher which is why universities give ‘doctorates’ to people clever enough to become a PhD.

Us medical practitioners are not technically doctors unless we have gained an MD which, in the UK is a post graduate qualification. Doctor is a courtesy title for most of us who only have a bachelor’s degree. As my sons are keen to point out, I’m not a real doctor, I’m a physician.

Hopefully, one of the ways to avoid doctors, the clinic or the infirmary is by vaccination, from vacca meaning cow.

The early smallpox vaccinations involved giving people the mild disease of cow pox which gave them immunity to smallpox. There are even anti vaccination cartoons suggesting that vaccination will turn people into cows; an argument not used by the most extreme anti-vac groups.

Orthopaedics literally means, ortho, Greek for straight as in orthodox, and paed for children. Early orthopaedic surgeons helped to straighten children with deformities such as bowlegs. They did not replace the Ischio or hip.

One of the more bizarre origins is the word hysteria which is derived from the Greek word for womb. To the early doctors it was obvious that only the weaker sex, women, would get hysterical and so it was believed that hysteria was due to a wandering womb.

I could try to use the Latin or Greek to sound clever in everyday life but I’m not sure it would work.

I don’t think the Redcliffe Hotel in Paignton is about to change its name to the Erythematous Cliff Hotel any time soon.