«In Medicine, 40% of the names have Greek origin»

Jose Alfonso Ballesteros Fernandez (Zamora, 1944) is an internist, a tenured academic at the Royal Academy of Medicine of the Balearic Islands, of which he was president, and former director of the Fundación Patronat Científic del Col legi de Metges, which will host the presentation next Wednesday, January 18 from his book The language of medicineawarded the Camilo José Cela Award for Medical Humanities 2022.

It is not the first time that he deals with the language of Medicine…
—Many years ago in an inaugural session of the Royal Academy I already discussed this topic.

In the book, have you updated what you explained then or has the subject hardly evolved?
—Language evolves every day, although since the first conference the book has changed relatively little, but the focus has been deeper. The text is not very long because otherwise people will not read it, as Baltasar Gracián said: the good, if brief, is twice as good.

What do we find inside?
—It has three very different parts. A first that is the creation of the language of Medicine 2,500 years ago from classical Greece, with the famous Hippocrates, to the present day. A review of the classic authors is made through the works that have made a dent in Medicine. In the second part I talk about the phenomenon of English because in our time it has been seen as a lingua franca, with its advantages and disadvantages. Among them are bad translations, there are many ‘false friends’ for example ‘current’ in English means ‘real’; ‘flu’ is ‘spasm’; ‘medicineman’ is ‘healer’… And those who don’t know the language well make incorrect translations.

Is English now like the Esperanto of Medicine?
—By the way, Esperanto was invented by a doctor, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, who lived in an area where many languages ​​were spoken. In the history of Medicine there are many doctors who have been prominent writers, such as Arthur Connan Doyle, Gregorio Marañón… I mention them in the book.

He said that the text had three different parts….
—Yes, the second was the adaptation from English and the irruption of Spanglish… And finally, the third part of the book deals with the abuses of language that occur in Medicine, such as barbarisms, proper names (a disease can be designated by the name of its discoverer, such as Alzheimer’s) and capital letters because in English they use more than enough, initials and acronyms, numbers…

Does someone who studies Medicine have to be fluent in English?
—I would say that nowadays it is practically essential to at least read it. I am from a time when they taught French and I realized that I had to know it. Something similar occurs to what happened at the beginning of the 19th century when the dominant lingua franca was French. Ramón y Cajal gave the entrance speech for the Nobel Prize in that language. Years later he recognized that if someone wanted to be up-to-date in Medicine, he had to know German. The importance of English is from the First World War.

What do you think of the name given to the latest subvariants of COVID, BA.5 or kraken?
—It is the abuse of the acronyms that I was telling you. Classically, the names were put in Greek and only the Americans have broken this tradition, many times they use English expressions, there is one that sounds bad, hairy cell leukemia, in classical language it would have been said hairy cell leukemia. In Medicine, for example, there are no names in German, the Central Europeans were very respectful of history and all the names were taken from Greek and Latin.

For example ‘stroke’?
—It’s Greek and means hit. It is a very expressive word because it encompasses the two possibilities: hemorrhage and thrombosis and indicates acuteness because it appears suddenly.

I’ll ask you about the two in fashion: flu and COVID.
—It is one of the few that we have translated because the word flu already exists in English, it means spasm. COVID is an acronym for COronaVIrus Disease and must be said in the feminine because it is a disease. However, we say AIDS in the masculine because it is a syndrome. But sometimes the acronyms acquire enough personality to become words, since it is already accepted by the Royal Academy of Language.

So the base of the denominations in Medicine is the classical language?
—40% are of Greek origin, although they may be one of those who later used their system. The purpose is to be universal. 30% is of Latin origin because they had a lot of influence in the Middle Ages. Little Arabic, Spanish and a little more in English. The importance of languages ​​can be measured by medical vocabulary.

Spanish is very coarse.
—The dictionary of the Spanish language has around 100,000 terms and the RAE’s medical terms dictionary has 52,000.

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