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02 December 2021
Volume 29 · Issue 12


George Winter discusses the use of jargon and euphemisms in the medical profession, and examines how obfuscation through language choice can affect communication with patients

In his essay on the death of words, Charles Morgan writes ‘for want of a common speech, the learned are, in a sense, trapped within their special areas of knowledge’ (Morgan, 1948), noting that knowledge itself, in its technical development, has grown farther away from language. Yet, over 50 years later, the gap between knowledge and language continues to widen. Perhaps it is because we continue to fish from an increasingly stagnant pool of stock linguistic expressions, while failing to notice not only that language changes over time, but also that the way we think determines how we speak.

In a midwifery context, Thomson (1999) expressed concern over the use – rather, misuse – of a range of words and phrases. For example, although ‘perinatal’ refers to the health of the baby during the latter third of pregnancy and the first week of life, she detected it ‘creeping into the literature and everyday practice, in particular when referring to postnatal depression’. The phrase ‘teenage pregnancy’ should apply only to weeks 13–19 of gestation, otherwise ‘pregnant teenagers’ is preferred; and Thomson professed amazement ‘that in the literature the term “ethnic minorities” is used repeatedly’, when the term ‘people from ethnic minority groups’ should be used (Thomson, 1999).

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