Doctored Language

When medical jargon hurts

A sheriff said a suspect in the killing of a family may have some injuries, including “include cuts, lacerations, bruises, contusions, abrasions, and/or loss of hair.”

When was the last time you fell off your skateboard and told your friends the next day that you were “covered in contusions”? Or you sliced a finger with the tomato knife and complained about the “laceration” it gave you?

People don’t talk like that, and neither should news stories, or anything written for the non-medical community. Except in cases where some specificity is demanded, a “laceration” or “abrasion” can be a “cut,” and a “contusion” can be a “bruise.” Readers understand those terms.

It’s easy to fall into the jargon of sources or marketers: Suspects are “perps”; gunmen are “shooters”; and used cars are “pre-owned.”

One problem with using jargon is it changes a reader’s image of the term under discussion: A “contusion” sounds more serious than a “bruise.” (And, as Elinore Longobardi wrote in CJR recently, using jargon can even change the public debate: “Subprime loan” sounds a lot nicer than “predatory lending.”

After police jargon, medical jargon is probably the most prevalent. “Hospitals” become “medical centers” (and in some cases, hospitals associated with colleges want to be known as “medical campuses”). Patients are always “rushed” to these places (as opposed to being taken via the scenic route, perhaps?), where they are treated by “medical personnel” instead of by “doctors and nurses.” Perhaps they undergo “surgeries” or “procedures” (instead of “operations”) and “stitches” become “sutures.”

Journalist, heal thyself. Write the way you would talk. If you don’t understand the term, ask. It won’t hurt a bit.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.