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English medical slang: its characteristics, functions and ways of formation
Author: Kobryn Nadiya Zinoviyivna, Danylo Halytskyi Lviv National Medical University
Medical discourse is the codified type of professional language that is used for written and oral scientific communication among health care workers in the sphere of medicine. In its major part, the language of medicine is deprived of stylistic colouring and is composed of neutral terms, mainly of Greek and Latin origin, that are suitable for use in any situation of medical setting.
There is, however, an informal side of speech in medicine that serves to satisfy the needs of oral dialogue communication among specialists of this sphere. Hereby, it may utilize not only official standard medical terminology but also colloquial substitutes or deviations of scientifically accepted terms that are collectively named ‘medical slang’ by linguists.
Hence, the object of our scientific research is English slang in medicine. The aim of the investigation is to study the notion and definition of medical slang in English language, its major characteristic features and functions as well as ways of slang formation.
As a linguistic phenomenon, medical slang is considered to be ‘short-lived, slippery in meaning, characteristic of marginalized groups, oral, and highly conditioned by social situation’ . These are the main characteristics that militate against the frequent and consistent occurrence of slang words or expressions in dictionaries. Consequently, linguists pay little emphasis on slang leaving it as unofficial and insignificant process of medical colloquial language development. This may explain the lack of an adequate definition of slang.
In defining the term ‘slang’, most dictionaries state that it is an informal spoken language peculiar to a particular group (in our case, health care providers) which is characterized by ‘an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant forced, or facetious figures of speech’ . English professor Connie Eble in her book Slang and Sociability, however, defines slang as ‘an ever changing set of colloquial words or phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness in society at large’ . Thus, speaking about medical slang and taking Eble’s definition as a basis for the investigation, we may state that medical slang serves a purpose to establish professional identity among doctors, nurses, paramedics and other medical staff.
Slang tends to appear and be used on various grounds. Medical specialists frequently have a desire to shorten or to simplify a language they apply in everyday communication among themselves. Sometimes they need light-hearted variations of standard terms or use sense of humour in order to cope with difficult, stressful or routine medical situations (3H enema – an enema that is ‘high, hot, and a hell of a lot’, reputedly referred to patients who give staff a hard time ). Some slang may be pejorative expressing contempt, disapproval and even abuse (walking time bomb – someone with a disease that could be fatal at any moment, such as aortic aneurysm ). Finally, slang also occurs in speech of the medical team to replace awkward or offensive words with those that seem more socially acceptable (running towards the light – dying ).
To summarize the above said, medical slang involves creating a sense of belonging to the team of health care providers; establishes a unique identity; provides a private means of communication; exercises creativity, humour, and wit to some extend; softens tragedy and discharges strong emotions.
Analysis of medical slang glossaries demonstrates that most slang words or phrases used in medicine are related to and may be grouped into different categories including but not limited to: 1) the setting (various types of hospitals and provided facilities): air wolf – air-ambulance , death camp – terminal nursing home ; 2) the medical players (care-givers and care-receivers): axe – a surgeon , banana – a patient with jaundice ; 3) medical conditions and related problems: acute lead poisoning – a gunshot wound ; 4) types of medications: bug juice – antibiotics , Vitamin M – morphine ; 5) the social processes occurring in hospital, i.e. patient admission, diagnosis, treatment and discharge, etc.: basement admission – will end up in hospital morgue (as a rule, located in the hospital basement) , hallucinoma – a mass seen on a scan or X-ray that was not really there ; 5) death and dying: 10th Floor Transfer – dying , ART (Assuming/Approaching Room Temperature) – dead , to box – to die .
Medical slang as a language phenomenon has consistent nature and peculiarities. In English language, medical slang is of lexical rather than phonological or syntactic nature. However, body language and intonation are often critical for a word or phrase to be interpreted as slang. Besides, slang expressions do not allow idiosyncratic word order. Slang phrases are usually formed in an established synthetic pattern. Furthermore, morphological processes occurring in this language phenomenon are the same as those characteristic to ordinary vocabulary, i.e. compounding, affixation, shortening, and functional shift .
However, judging from compiled medical slang glossaries, the most productive ways of slang formation are abbreviations and creation of medical term substitutes by means of tropes (rhetorical figures of speech). It is an accepted fact that an abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase. Usually, but not always, it consists of a letter or group of letters taken from the word or phrase, e.g.: BWCO (Baby Won’t Come Out) – needs Caesarian , CBT (Chronic Burger/Biscuit Toxicity) – obesity . There are several types of abbreviations, the most common being acronyms and initialisms.
Acronym is defined as a word formed from the initial parts including letters, syllables or arbitrary parts of a name : CHAOS (Chronic Hurts All Over Syndrome) – fibromyalgia , Hippo – hypochondriac or depressive , Hi 5 – HIV positive (‘V’ being Roman for 5) . Initialism, on the contrary, is a group of initial letters used as an abbreviation for a name or expression, each letter being pronounced separately : FTF (Failed to Fly) – botched suicide , VIP – very intoxicated person . Therefore, the key difference between an acronym and initialism is as follows: an acronym forms a new word, while an initalism is deprived of such ability.
The use of figurative language by health care providers is another means of slang formation and may be explained by the fact that it facilitates informal expert-to-expert communication that is full of value judgments which connote demonstrations, criticism and agreement/disagreement, with traces of hidden emotions, admiration, irony and contempt, etc . Besides, tropes help in substituting routine medical terms with words and expressions unfamiliar to non-specialists. The most commonly applied tropes that participate in medical slang creation are metaphors, metonymies and euphemisms.
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object achieving its effects via association, comparison or resemblance . For instance, intensive care unit is compared to torture room due to invasive tubes, monitors and experimental treatments used in critically ill patient treatment . In metonymy, a thing or concept is not called by its own name but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept : slang phrase bumps and lumps indicates junior doctor’s (intern’s) simple medical cases . A euphemism is a generally harmless word, name or phrase that replaces an offensive or suggestive one: e.g. significant history may be used instead of HIV positive .
No doubt, medical slang is unconventional. It is not appropriate in some settings such as resume or a letter of sympathy, not to mention formal medical discourse. Some slang expressions are objectionable because most people fail to understand them, others because they are regarded offensive or vulgar. Moreover, many slang abbreviations may be misunderstood and confused with genuine medical terms leading to wrong treatment administration: RBS (Really Bad Shape vs. Random Blood Sugar).
Studying the notion of medical slang in English, we have come to the conclusion that the phenomenon of medical slang is quite controversial and there have always existed limitations on its use in medicine as it is frequently considered unethical and unacceptable. As a result, medical slang tends to be restricted to oral use, informal notes or e-mails which do not form part of a patient’s formal records. It may also be used among medical staff outside of the hospital. It is not found on patients’ charts and, due to growing awareness of medical slang, often not used in front of patients themselves.
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2.Christopher Peterson, Medical Slang in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. [Electronic resource]. – Mode of access: www.scielo.br/pdf/csp/v14n4/0212.pdf.
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4.Eble, Connie. 1996. Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language among College Students. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.
5.ERTV: Medical Glossary. [Electronic resource]. – 2008. – Mode of access: http://www2.warnerbros.com/ertv/medical_gloss.html.
6.Hands In the World: A Drama Major’s Journey to Medical School. [Electronic resource]. – 2011. – Mode of access: http://handsintheworld.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/medical-slang-dictionary.
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8.Merriam-Webster Dictionary. [Electronic resource]. – 2012. – Mode of access: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slang.
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