Articles & Experts

Medical Buzzwords Can Be Fun, But They Don't Do Much Good

Thursday, November 01, 2018


There’s an increasingly circulated anecdote (usually among graphic designers) about a big-time representative from a big-time tech company meeting before a middle school class. He asks the students, presumably born in the early 2000s, if they know what a floppy disk is. He's met with silence. Then, he produces a floppy disk from his sport coat pocket and shows it to them. “This is a floppy disk,” he says, turning it over in his hands to show them. “Now, have any of you seen one of these before?” After a few more beats of silence, a child raises her hand to say that she recognizes the object as the icon she clicks on to save her progress on Microsoft office. A few seconds later, another child raises his hand because he’s seen it on his Angry Birds game. A wave of recognition floods the classroom as the children place a function and a purpose to a tangible object they’re encountering for the very first time. 


Perhaps the anecdote is exaggerated (aren't they all?), but the intended principle rings relevant: words need context to be fully understood. Consider the mind-blowing fact that this anecdote actually reveals: for the last 18 years, floppy disks have only really existed as skeuomorphic (a fancy term for \"making digital items resemble their real-world counterparts\") “save” graphics on our computers and mobile apps, and children born after 2000 are extremely unlikely to have ever seen one \"in the wild.\" 



On Creating Buzzwords


These divides in comprehension crisscross every facet of culture and industry as our old processes continually blur into neutralizing digital futures, and medicine is no exception. Consider a medical buzzword construction like “Orphan Annie Eyes,” a phrase which describes the cells that help diagnose papillary thyroid cancer. As John Biemer outlines in his article Is it time to Update Antiquated Medical Buzzwords? it’s a term with resonance, first officially appearing in a 1971 book entitled Basic Endocrine Pathology and referring to the cell nucleus as “relatively empty (like Orphan Annie Eyes.).” Practicing American physicians of the era would have likely understood the reference because the Little Orphan Annie comic strip was a daily comic strip that ran in syndication from 1894 to 1968. In fact, many physicians currently practicing would understand the reference as Little Orphan Annie is a bona fide cultural icon, but this kind of ubiquity won’t last forever and decreases with each passing year. The term is still taught to young medical students mostly unfamiliar with the character, many of whom were born and raised outside of the united states and have absolutely no context of Annie, her eyes or the adventure she shares with her rich benefactor, Daddy Warbucks. 


I’m no stooge. I know that of buzzwords lend a gleeful air of contemporaneity to the language we use, and can even clarify its meaning, with “laymen” cultural definitions. Still, for our language to remain truly effective in a globalizing industry, we must assure that all who engage it are acutely familiar with the backstory and in an age with such rapid informational turnover, we simply can’t count on our buzzwords to stay in vogue infinitely.



Do They Really Matter Though?


We likely use buzzwords, phrases and sayings every day that betray their original intention. I won’t claim to know the etymological backstory of “OK” for example, and I can admit that I just barely learned that when we say “pull out all the stops” we’re actually referring to an organ player increasing the volume of the instrument. Does my understanding of this organ player backstory enhance my knowledge and understanding of the phrase? I'd like to think so.


Buzzwords are often a product of timing and through generations and evolution, they lose their original prescribed meaning. Those buzzwords and phrases with user-friendly applications (like “the whole 9 yards”) adapt and continue in our language while too niche or obscure fall out of our spoken canon where they stay hidden away, only resurrected for stodgy discussion in dusty college literature programs. Linguists often describe our language in the same terms they would a casserole or stew of social developments, one shaped and flavored the various ingredients and cultural impressions throughout history. Biemer describes antiquated medical phrases like \"currant jelly sputum\" to describe the appearance of bloody mucous coughed up by someone with pneumonia or the \"Maltese cross\" shape of the fatty casts contained within the urine of those with necrotic syndrome…and while these buzzwords work in their time, we cannot assume that blackberry currants or the Knights of Malta will hold the same relevance today as they did in the past. It's for this reason that our language, often without our own input, updates itself to stay relevant.



More Work/Little Pay Off


Some medical students use Buzzwords to keep the staggering overflow of medical info and jargon straight in their brains, or simply as mental crib sheets a big exam. Maybe these buzzwords offer a quick workaround explanation for an improvising professor. That's all fine and good. Where buzzwords become problematic is when they require clarification and explanation in order to be truly useful to those who hear them. If you think about it in a The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying kind of way, all the time you’d save inventing new term, even those which sidestep medical jargon, you’ll lose explaining to the next few generations what that buzzword even means. 


Don’t get me wrong, buzzwords are great fun, in any capacity. Who doesn’t love bemoaning a once-lauded TV-program's fall from greatness by saying they “jumped the shark?” Buzzwords simply don't contain much substance terms of long term value. During their relatively small window of contemporary relevance, buzzwords provide some enhancement to our language (think \"Brangelina\" from a few years back), but it’s a gimmick that will quickly devolve into more aqueous terms which float, unconnected to their original intended function, begging to be explained and contextualized by those old or cultured enough to know. (Here's where I explain to those who don't know: \"Jumping the shark\" is an idiom used to describe the moment in arc of television show when it begins a decline in quality; based on a scene from a fifth-season episode of the sitcom Happy Days when the character Fonzie jumps over a shark while on water-skis). 


So, to the gatekeepers and dispensers of medical information, be responsible with buzzwords and use them sparingly, especially when it comes to medicine. In the meantime, think about how you'll be explaining flip phones to your grandkids.  






Bavle, Radhika M. \"ORPHAN ANNIE-EYE NUCLEI.\" 


Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, Summer 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.




Biemer, John, MD. \"Is It Time to Update Antiquated Medical Buzzwords?\" KevinMD, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.




Khan A, Haque S, Shah SQ, Irfan J. “Orphan annie eyes: From Comics to Clinics.” 


International Journal of Pathology, 2011;9:47–8.




McFedries, Paul. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weird Word Origins.


 Indianapolis, IN: Alpha, 2008. Print. 







Staff writer for Physicians Office Resource