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More words (Medical) I Love.

A couple of years back, I offered some comments in my column on "Words I Love" (pristine, amend, and iteration) and gave reasons why they appealed to me. They were relatively common words with no medical or scientific implications.

I now want to add some words to my list of favorites; these are medical. Why do I love them? Let me count the ways. It is not because of any clinical or intrinsic meaning. It is more the sound that strikes my ears, the nuance of tone when pronounced, the beauty of the sound, or sometimes the alliteration or onomatopoeia. By coincidence--and purely coincidence--three of the words describe bodily sounds; maybe that's why they appeal to my sense of hearing. .


For the medically unsophisticated, borborygmus certainly sounds like an impressive scientific word ("scientific" here meaning a big word to keep anyone from understanding). But to me--and probably to those of you who recognize it--it is one of the most onomatopoetic words in health jargon.

Stemming from roots that are very similar in Middle English, Latin, French, and Greek, its meaning is universal. For example, in Greek and French it simply means "to rumble." Modern dictionaries would probably use the definition "intestinal rumbling caused by moving gas."

But once you know what it means, it does not take much imagination to realize that the sound suggests the meaning and that makes it appealing.

The word also has value and impact if it is used with lay persons--impressive to say the least. Not bad for just a little old intestinal gas.


Taken directly from the Latin flatus in about 1681, its original meaning remains unchanged--even though it is sometimes translated as blowing or wind. In fact, the exact word is found in dictionaries of several languages--it is universal.

Flatus is variously described as "gas in the stomach or intestine" or "gas emitted from the intestinal tract through the rectum." Today, its meaning is mostly limited to the latter definition.

Why do I like the word? It certainly is not onomatopoetic nor is it beautiful sounding. There is just something about it that attracts my ear, even though it is not a commonly used word.


Derived from the Latin singult, meaning catching one's breath while sobbing, this terminology is a "fancy" term for hiccups (or hiccoughs). The latter terms are so widely used that singultus is rarely used--usually only for purposes of ostentation and obfuscation and for spelling bees.

An interesting sidelight: hiccup and hiccough are exact synonyms and can always be used interchangeably.

Like borborygmus, singultus is supposed to be onomatopoetic--but for me that is hard to swallow (oops!). Saying it does not--to my ears--sound like hiccups. The term was first used in 1530. But even though I do not use it in ordinary speech or medical communication, I still like the sound of it.


I love "cockles" as a medical word, even though its only anatomical relationship is in a single phrase. So I include it here.

Everybody knows what the loving phrase "warm the cockles of my heart" means. It denotes a sensation of immense pleasure or affection, with a sort of special twist or emphasis.

Ah, yes, but how many people know what a single cockle is? Or where else you can use it in the English language? And is there such a thing as "a cockle"?

Dictionaries (those that do list it--many do not) have varying interpretations and comments with agreement it seems only on 2 things: it probably derives from the fact that the human heart resembles in shape the cockleshell (a bivalve mollusk) and its use in the widely known, centuries-old expression. There seems to be no indication for a single "cockle."

In fact, the use of "cockles" in that wonderful expression appears to be the only logical use of the word. No dictionary suggests any other definition or place for it.

So, here we have a single word with no exact definition, with a known use only in one phrase. But it is a universally recognized and understandable word. That's an unusual role for a word to occupy in linguistics.

I think that its widespread use in just one idiom (a very warm and comfortable home) explains its universal recognition and acceptance. For me, I appreciate it because every time it crosses my mind, I hear some brilliant Irish actor with his revered brogue rolling his r's on "It warams the cockles of me 'art." What's prettier?

So if, upon retrospection, your cogitations promulgate some misinterpretation of my motivation, and your contemplation makes the assumption that I am entranced solely by polysyllabic ponderosities and conglomerations of garrulities, be assured, lexicologically speaking, that your outlook is opinionated and conclusory. They are simply some of my favorite words.

By Arnold Melnick, DO
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Title Annotation:Melnick on Writing
Author:Melnick, Arnold
Publication:American Medical Writers Association Journal
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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