Introduction to Medical Terminology

Touseef Riaz

July 29, 2021

Introduction to Medical Terminology

Different professions have different languages associated with them. For instance, automobile mechanics have their own terminology to describe the various situations and objects that they face while working, with terms like an overhaul, gasket, and master cylinder thrown around. Similarly, healthcare professionals apply terms in their fields to describe the different situations and objects in their everyday work. These terms, which make up the overall language of medicine, are referred to as medical terminology.

To begin with, understanding medical terminology is a crucial component for anyone associated with the medical field. For students just starting their medical careers, getting familiar with medical terminology can be daunting especially if they are intimidated by the long and complex terms. True enough, at first glance medical terminology does seem like a foreign language. But the key to understanding the terms is to break them into components (roots, prefixes, and suffixes).

What is Medical Terminology?

Whether it is medical coding, administration, transcription, or clinical roles, understanding and applying medical terminology is essential for overall success. It is a broad term that is used to describe the different conditions, procedures, treatments, anatomical structures that are associated with the medical field.

The terms may appear to be complex and intimidating, but once you make headway with the structure and get to memorize some of the common word elements, it becomes easier to parse through the thousands of terms included in the language. That is because most of the medical terms follow a fixed structure, where each term is made up of a set of common word components.

Many of the medical terms are derived from Greek and Latin. Over the centuries, however, the language has evolved to include multiple languages till English became the dominant language for communicating internationally.


Similar to other languages, medical terminology has evolved over time. But the base still remains the same. Most of the medical terms have their base in the Greek and Latin languages. For instance, herpes is a medical term given to a skin disease that causes inflammation. The term herpes is derived from the Greek word ‘herpo’, which means ‘creep along’, to describe the skin condition.

The science of anatomy truly began during the Renaissance period, when many early anatomists belonged to the Italian schools of medicine. The enlightened souls discovered many of the anatomical structures and gave them Latin names. The tradition continues and as result, Latin accounts for the majority of root words in the English language.

The second most common source of medical root words is the Greek language. That can be attributed to the research and teachings of Galen, a Greek physician whose work remained influential for over 1,500 years. His work included names given to many of the diseases and conditions that are continued to this day.

Lastly, some older root words found in medical terminology have origins in Arabic. In the Middle Ages, Arabic scholars and physicians were important teachers of medicine and contributed much and more in recognizing and treating diseases.


To better understand and familiarize with medical terminology, you need to break down the terms into their separate components of the prefix, root word, and suffix and to have a working knowledge of these parts.


A prefix appears at the beginning of a medical term (but not always), and generally denotes direction, location, quality, or intensity. Prefixes are commonly found in the general English language as well as in scientific and medical terminology. Mostly, when a prefix is added to a medical word, it alters the meaning of that term altogether. Below are some common prefixes and their meanings used in medical terminology:

Meaning Prefix
above supra-
around peri-
across trans-
between inter-
out of, outside ex-, ec(t)-
self auto-
through, completely dia-
together con-
toward ad-
within, inside end(o)-


The stem or the main part of a medical term is called a root word and gives the essential meaning to the term. Most medical terms contain at least one root word. In the absence of a prefix, a medical term begins with a root word.

Sometimes, a root word is combined with another root word, prefix, or suffix using a combining vowel to describe different structures and conditions. Here are some root words which you must have heard:

Meaning Root
ear ot, aur
eardrum tympan, myring
eye ophthalm, ocul
face faci
nose rhin
skull crani
tongue lingu
tooth odont, dent

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