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  • Writer's pictureChristie Roberts

What's in a name?

Truth time- I took Latin as an option for GCSE. Some aspects (like translating Horace on his journey to Brundisium) haven't really benefitted me later on in life. However, some aspects definitely have and one of those aspects is a better understanding of Etymology- the study of the origin and history of words. Understanding the roots of words helps not only in learning new languages (as long as they come from the same alphabet, like French, Spanish or German), but also helps massively in healthcare which is kind of like a language in itself.

Every word- whether it's indicating anatomy, pathophysiology or pharmacology- can be broken down into parts, and being able to understand those parts means that there's really no such thing as an unknown concept. Below, I've summarised common suffixes and prefixes (with examples for as many as I could think of in brackets) that you might see in nursing and medicine. I have also included some useful words or phrases that are used frequently in healthcare, which contribute further to understanding of concepts.

On my instagram (@christienursing), I've tried to demonstrate the process of how I w0uld break down and understand words using this terminology, alongside a quiz so you can try yourself. Once you've got common prefixes and suffixes committed to memory, you can break down basically any word and have a decent stab at 'translating' it.


Anatomical directions are reported related to other structures- i.e. fingers are distal to elbow/elbow is proximal to fingers, ears are lateral to eyes/eyes are medial to ears, superior vena cava is above the heart/ inferior vena cava is below the heart.

  • anterior/ventral- front (in an anatomical position)

  • posterior/dorsal- back (in an anatomical position)

  • inferior- below

  • superior- above

  • proximal- near

  • distal- far

  • medial- closer to the midline

  • lateral- further from the midline

  • ante, pre, pro- before (antenatal- BEFORE birth, prothrombin- BEFORE clotting)

  • hyper, super, supra, epi- above (hypercoagulable- ABOVE normal coagulation, supraventricular- ABOVE the ventricle, epidermis- ABOVE the dermis)

  • hypo, infra, sub- under, below (hypoglycaemia- BELOW normal blood glucose, subclavian- BELOW the clavicle)

  • peri- around (pericardium- AROUND heart tissues i.e. outermost layer)

  • endo- inside (endovascular- INSIDE blood vessels i.e. innermost layer)

  • cis, homo- same

  • trans, hetero- opposite

(all 4 of these terms may be familiar from expressions of gender and sexuality, and mean the same things in the medical world but in different contexts. For example, a cis-trans isomerism in pharmacology, or heterogeneity vs homogeneity in research studies)

  • uni/mono- 1 (unilateral)

  • bi/di- 2 (bifurcation- branching into TWO)

  • semi/hemi- half (hemiparesis- weakness of HALF the body)

  • tri- 3 (tricuspid)

  • quad- 4 (quadriplegia- paralysis of FOUR limbs)

  • quin- 5 (quintuplet)

  • intra- within (intracranial- WITHIN the cranium)

  • inter- between (intercostal muscles- muscles BETWEEN ribs)

  • co- with (co-amoxiclav- amoxicillin WITH clavulanic acid)

  • contra- against (contraindicated)

  • ipsi- same (ipsilateral- SAME side)

  • alb/leuko- white (leucocyte- WHITE cell)

  • chloro- green (chlorophyll)

  • erythro/rubo- red (erythema)

  • cyano- blue (cyanotic)

  • flav/jaun- yellow (jaundiced)

  • melan- black (melanin)

  • polio- grey (polioencephalitis- inflammation of GREY matter)

  • chemo- chemical (chemotaxis- movement in response to CHEMICAL stimulus)

  • baro- pressure (baroreceptor- receptor sensitive to PRESSURE changes)

  • noci- noxious stimuli (nociception- neural processing of pain- a NOXIOUS STIMULUS)

  • photo- light (photophobia)

  • thermo- heat (thermoregulation- ability to regulate body TEMPERATURE)

  • osmo- water (osmosis)

  • proprio- movement/positioning (proprioception- ability to perceive own POSITION in space)

A-Z ROOTS, PREFIXES (before word), and SUFFIXES (after word)

a/an- - absence of (anosmia, anencephalous)

ab- - away from (abduction- movement AWAY from midline)

ad- - above (adrenal gland- ABOVE the kidney)

-aemia - blood condition (anaemia, thalassaemia)

-algia - pain (neuralgia- nerve PAIN)

angio- - blood or lymph vessel (angiogram)

ante- - before (antenatal)

anti- - against (antipsychotic)

-asthenia - weakness (myasthenia- muscle WEAKNESS)

auto- - self (autoimmune)

brady- - slow (bradycardia)

-blast - bud (osteoblast- cells responsible for building new bone, like new flowers grow from buds)

bronchi- - bronchus (bronchitis- inflammation of BRONCHUS)

-capnia/-carbia - carbon dixoide (hypercapnic respiratory failure)

carcino- - cancer (carcinogen)

cardio- - heart (cardiogenic shock)

-centesis - surgical puncture for aspiration (thoracentesis- PUNCTURE in chest for fluid removal)

ceph- - head (encephalopathy)

cerebro- - brain (cerebrospinal)

cervic- - neck (either the neck neck, like cervical spine, or the neck of the uterus, like cervix)

chole- - bile (cholesterol)

cholecyst- - gallbladder (comes from chole (bile) and cyst (bladder)- so literally bile bladder. cholecystectomy- removal of BILE BLADDER)

-clast - break (osteoclast)

colon- - colon (colonoscopy)

colp- - vagina (colposcopy)

costo- - ribs (costochondritis)

-crine - to secrete (endocrine- TO SECRETE directly into blood, exocrine- TO SECRETE into ducts)

cutane- - skin (subcutaneous)

cyst- - bladder (cystoscopy)- Cyst as a word indicates an abnormal sac filled with liquid/semi-solid material, but as a prefix denotes a bladder, in particular the urinary bladder

cyto- - cell (cytokine)

-cyte - cell (leukocyte)

derma- - skin (dermatology)

-desis - binding (pleurodesis- BINDING of pleural membranes)

-dipsia - thirst (polydipsia)

dis- - removed/separated (dislocation)

-dynia - pain (allodynia)

dys- - bad/difficult (dysphagia, dysmotility(

-ectomy - surgical removal (oesophagostomy)

-emesis - vomiting (haematemesis- VOMITING blood)

endo- - inside (endoscopy)

entero- - intestine (gastroenterology- study of stomach and INTESTINES)

epi- - outside (epidural- OUTSIDE the dura)

eu- - normal (euvolaemia, euglycaemia)

fer- - carry (afferent- CARRY towards, efferent- CARRY away)

gastr- - stomach (gastric bypass)

-genic - produced by (cardiogenic shock)

gloss-/glott- - tongue (glossectomy)

gluco- - glucose (glucogon)

-graphy - process of recording (angiography)

haem- - blood (haematocrit)

hepat- - liver (hepatitis)

hydro- - water/watery substance (hydrocephalus)

hyper- - above normal (hyperventilation)

hypo- - below normal (hypoglycaemia)

-iatry - field of medicine (podiatry)

isch- - restriction (ischaemia- RESTRICTION of blood)

iso- - equality (isotonic)

-itis - inflammation (vasculitis)

-ium - structure/tissue (pericardium)

lapar- - abdomen/flank wall (laparotomy)

laryngo- - larynx (laryngectomy)

-lepsy - attack (narcolepsy)

litho- - stone (lithotripsy)

-logy - study of (pathology)

-lysis - destruction/release of (haemolysis- DESTRUCTION OF blood, anxiolytic- RELEASE OF anxiety)

-malacia - softening (osteomalacia)

-megaly - enlargement (splenomegaly, cardiomegaly)

meningo- - membrane

my- - muscle (myalgia- pain in MUSCLE, myocardium- heart MUSCLE)

neo- - new (neoplasm)

neph- kidneys (nephritis)

neuro- - nerves/nervous system (neurofibromatosis)

normo- - normal (normocapnic)

olig- - little (oliguria- LITTLE urine)

-oma - tumour (lymphoma)

onc- - tumour (oncology)

-osis - condition (psychosis)

osteo- - bone (osteoporosis)

-otomy - cutting into (laparotomy- CUTTING INTO abdomen)

pan- - total (pan cytopenia)

para- - alongside (parathyroid gland)

-pathy - disease (myopathy)

-paresis - weakness/partial loss of muscle function (gastroparesis)

-penia - deficiency (thrombocytopenia- DEFICIENCY of clotting cells)

-plegia - paralysis/total loss of muscle function (hemiplegia)

pleur- - ribs/pleural space (pleurodesis)

-plexy - stroke/seizure/attack (cataplexy)

pneumo- presence of air or gas (pneumothorax- AIR in chest)

pneumon/pulmo- lungs (pneumonectomy- surgical removal of LUNG, pulmonary)

poly- - many (polyuria)

renal - kidneys (renal artery)

-rrhage/rrhagia - rapid flow of blood (menorrhagia, haemorrhage)

-rrhoea - rapid flow of any other kind of substance (diarrhoea, rhinorrhoea)

sarco- - muscular (sarcoma)

sclero- - hardness (atherosclerosis)

-scopy - viewing (endoscopy)

somato- - bodily (somatoform)

splen- - spleen (splenectomy)

-stasis - stop (haemostasis)

-staxis - dripping (epistaxis)

-stenosis - narrowing (tracheal stenosis)

-stoma/stomy - mouth/ artificial opening (colostomy- OPENING from colon)

tachy- - fast (tachycardia) -tension - pressure (hypotension)

-therm - temperature (thermoreceptor)

thrombo- - clotting of blood (thrombus)

trophic - feeding/nutrition (e.g. trophic feeding- refers to very slow NG feeding designed to stimulate GI tract and prevent ileus, but not meeting nutritional requirements)

-trophy - development/growth (hypertrophy- over DEVELOPMENT)

uria/uresis- - urine/urinary system (polyuria, diuresis)

vaso- - vessel (vasocontraction)

-version - turning (cardioversion)

xero- - dry (xerostomia- DRY mouth)

I hope you're able to use this list as a reference point to help break down any words your come across. Committing the most common word roots to memory is a really useful tool- even if you're not able to fully work out what a word means, having an understanding of at least part of it might give you a starting point to understanding a concept. If you have any other suggestions of prefixes/suffixes that I've left off the list, please leave a comment on this post, or send me a message on Instagram/Twitter at @christienursing. As always, thank you for reading, and happy nursing!


'List of medical roots, suffixes and prefixes',%20suffixes%20and%20prefixes.pdf (this is a super useful resource, but a terrible reference. Literally cannot find an author or date? sorry!)

UCL (2004) 'Medical terms - Dissected, defined and explained'

Kent State University (no date) 'Medical terminology'

Hawks, J. (2013) 'A quick start on anatomical directions'

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