How Good Is Your Medical Vocabulary?



By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: Asiseeit / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Hopefully, you're in perfect health and have no reason to have learned a lot of medical terminology. But maybe a bit has sneaked into your vocabulary via other routes ... maybe you were thinking about going to medical school, have a doctor or nurse in the family or just love medical dramas on TV. Whatever the reason, we've got a quiz for you!

You'll have a leg up, by the way, if you studied Latin in school. Even more than Greek, this was the go-to language when it came time to map the body and name its parts (and its diseases). Fun fact: Latin was so important in the early days of the scientific revolution that even scientists themselves were renamed in Latin! Case in point: Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was born Carl von Linne; he was Swedish. In publications and texts, he became Carolus Linnaeus. Modern textbooks have split the difference: first name Swedish-style, last name Latin. 

It'll also help you to know prefixes and suffixes; that is, an "-itis" from an "-osis." And the "directions" of the body, like "proximal," "medial," "ventral," and "dorsal." Whew! We're getting tired just thinking about how complex medical lingo is ... but, hopefully, you're just getting warmed up. Good luck!

What does the prefix "neuro-" refer to?

Remember "n for nerves" and you've got this one covered. The nervous system is one of two systems by which the body sends messages from one part to another, usually from the brain to outlying areas. The other is the endocrine system, which uses hormones as messengers.


__________ is a severe allergic reaction.

Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening swelling of tissues, especially those in the airway, which can lead to suffocation. Patients sometimes have anaphylactic reactions to bee stings (among other triggers), and carry epinephrine auto-injectors in case of emergency.


Where in the body do you find "marrow"?

You likely learned in third- or fourth-grade health science that bone marrow is where new blood cells are created. It's also where certain immune cells are formed. (The thymus is the other part of the body involved in making immune cells).


Closely related to "cerebral," this word actually refers to the skull, not the brain. It is ...

We remember this one thanks to the late Ann Landers. The advice columnist liked to say that kooky people had "a geranium in his/her cranium." It refers to the skull or "braincase," not the brain itself.


"Hepatic" is an adjective describing which body part?

You might be familiar with "hepatitis," or inflammation of the liver. There are five varieties of hepatitis, A through E. (Or six, if you watched "True Blood" and learned about hepatitis V, the kind that affected vampires).


An injury to the brain might be described as a ______ trauma.

"Cerebral" relates to the brain. It has been adopted into everyday English as a synonym for "intellectual," but the former term still has a medical meaning, whereas "intellectual" does not. An "intellectual" injury might be the embarrassment of thinking you just quoted Socrates, only to be told the words were from a Hallmark card instead.


Which of these is another name for "nerve cell"?

This one was probably easy, because of a previous question about the prefix "neuro-". A "synapse" is a related term, meaning the connection between neurons.


What is the opposite of "anterior"?

This is another pair of terms that helps medical professionals find their way around the body. "Anterior" is front and "posterior" is rear. For example, the pituitary gland is divided into an anterior and posterior lobe, each of which has a different set of functions.


What is the informal name for the patella?

The patella is a flat triangular bone that protects the knee joint from injury. Well, it does so until we injure the knee anyway, by playing pickup basketball, or rugby, or taking up snowboarding at 50 ... any of the unwise things humans are prone to doing.


Although the suffix "-itis" can generally mean disease, it most often refers specifically to what?

Inflammation is a common medical problem and can be anything from a minor annoyance to a life-threatening condition. In the latter category, consider "pancreatitis," a dangerous inflammation of the pancreas.


Which of these is a bone in the arm?

The humerus is the long bone that runs from your shoulder to your elbow. From the elbow to the hand, two bones make the connection: the radius and ulna, which are parallel to each other.


Which of these is another name for the hormone "epinephrine"?

This hormone is named for its position in the body. The partial word "-nephri" refers to the kidneys, while "epi-" means "over." The adrenal gland, therefore, sits atop the kidneys. Sidebar: It's good to have a backup name for this hormone, as "adrenalin" has been almost completely taken over by car buffs talking about muscle cars.


If you're talking about the veins and arteries, you might use the word ...

"Venous" refers only to veins and is usually used in relation to the blood that flows through the veins. If you need a word that covers *all* the blood vessels, "vascular" is the right choice.


Where would you find synovial fluid?

Synovial fluid is said to resemble egg whites (and we're sure it does; we're just glad we've never had an accident bad enough to confirm this in person!) Its purpose is to lubricate the inside of a joint, protecting it from regular friction.


What does the word "serum" refer to?

Generally speaking, this refers to plasma, minus cells called "fibrinogens." When you have a blood test to check whether medication is getting into your bloodstream properly, the test results will refer to your "serum levels" of the drug (or its metabolites).


Which of these is the informal name for the tibia?

There are two bones that run from your knee to your ankle, the tibia and the fibula. The tibia is the one in front, which means that when an angry little kid kicks you, the tibia is the bone that takes the hit.


If you're seeing a "nephrologist," what part of the body are you worried about?

Our public-service announcement of the day: If you're having back pain and pain with urination, it can be easy to dismiss these symptoms as "getting older disease." However, these are two signs of pyelonephritis, or kidney infection. If they persist, have these symptoms checked out.


Which of these bones is casually called the elbow?

The elbow is the name for the joint, not a bone. If you must have a formal name for this, you could use the Latin term "cubitus," though it only turns up in medical terminology in its adjective form, "cubital."


Where in the body would you find osteoblasts or osteoclasts?

The prefix "osteo-" comes from the Latin word "os," which, confusingly, can mean either "bone" or "mouth." Osteoblasts and osteoclasts are types of cells, encouraging the creation and the breakdown of bone material, respectively.


Which of these is the longest bone in the human body?

The femur is casually called the "thigh bone," and runs from the pelvis to the knee. The femoral artery is named for it, a large-bore artery that is very dangerous to accidentally cut into (but, fortunately, is well-protected by a layer of thick muscle.)


A "pathogen" is anything that causes _____.

This is a fairly broad term. Often, though, we think of pathogens as being microbial, because they often are. An example is E. coli, a bacterium which causes nasty food poisoning.


If something in the body is "interstitial," what is it?

You'll find the word "interstitial" in usages far afield of medicine; it's used to describe things that exist in the gaps between almost anything. In medicine, it often refers to the space between tissues in the organs, e.g. interstitial cystitis in the lungs.


Your "endocrine" system makes and manages what?

Hormones get a bad rap. In popular culture, they're considered the thing that makes men get in fights (testosterone) or women binge on Haagen-Dazs (estrogen). In truth, these two hormones are far more subtle and complex in their functioning. Others, like insulin, are essential for survival.


Which of these is a region of the brain (but not a lobe)?

The thalamus is a region of the brain responsible for sleep and waking, alertness, and the release or inhibition of a number of important hormones. Other, similar functions are taken on by the hypothalamus, so named because it is located below the thalamus.


One of these words, usually associated with trees, is also applied to teeth. Which is it?

"Deciduous teeth" are better known as baby teeth or milk teeth. In forests, a deciduous tree is one that sheds leaves in autumn and regrows them in the spring, as opposed to evergreens, which have leaves or needles year-round.


A general region of the brain is called a what?

The brain has six lobes. While they are generally defined as "regions," certain functions do tend to cluster in certain lobes. For example, religious ideation or feelings of spirituality tend to arise from the temporal lobe.


"Olfactory" describes the functions of which sense?

This term refers to the sense of smell or to the nose. Fun fact: Did you know that it's a myth that you only have five senses? Other senses include "proprioception," the awareness of one's body in space, which is rooted in far more than touch, and the awareness of the passage of time, sometimes called the "body clock."


Which of these is the best definition of "Western medicine"?

Don't @ us! Linguistic research bears out that the term "Western medicine" was virtually unheard of before about 1920, and began a rapid ascent around 1960. The truth is that premodern medicine looked the same all over the world -- herbs, bloodletting, prayers -- just as today, evidence-based medicine looks the same all over the world. Chinese and Indian medical researchers lead the way in stem-cell therapy and other cutting-edge, lifesaving procedures.


If a drug's effect is "inhibitory," what does it do?

This term is also common in describing precursor hormones (ones that influence other hormones). For example, dopamine is also known as "prolactin-inhibiting hormone," meaning that dopamine prevents the creation of prolactin, a hormone that stimulates production of breast milk.


The dreaded (but far from life-threatening) malady of herpes takes its name from what type of animals?

Herpetology is the study of reptiles; the word comes from the Greek "herpetos," meaning "crawling." Labial herpes appears as fever blisters on the rips or, more rarely, inside the mouth. It is not serious or life-threatening, but can be quite stigmatizing.


The ovary is a ...

The confusion here comes from the definition of "gland." Some people say it's a type of organ, others not. In fact, there's no exact consensus on how many organs the human body has. At any rate, the ovaries are glands that create egg cells, allowing reproduction of the species (human or otherwise).


What is a "caduceus"?

Technically, a caduceus has a staff, two snakes and two wings. People with extensive knowledge of ancient symbols will tell you that the caduceus is a flawed choice to represent the medical profession. It was a common symbol of a tribune or messenger of the gods, but the symbol of the healer was the Rod of Asclepius, a single staff with only one snake.


An "oocyte" is what kind of cell?

It's a funny little word, isn't it? If you like, you can use its variant, "ovocyte" (which makes the connection to "egg" and "ovary" etymologically clearer). In essence, we're talking about the cells that travel from the ovaries to the uterus to be fertilized.


Which of these is the opposite of "dorsal"?

There are more than a dozen general terms that let medical people "navigate" the body (often in sketches or at autopsy), and often these terms are paired up as opposites. "Dorsal" and "ventral" are "back" and "stomach," respectively.


Believe it or not, this anatomical term means "little mouse"!

"Musculus" is "little mouse in Latin (the suffix "-ulus" or "-culus" is a diminutive, making a word smaller). So our muscles, which we think of as making us big and strong, actually have a rather humbling name!


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