What medical jargon may be doing to our brains

Everybody knows that doctors sometimes have the annoying habit of using medical jargon when speaking to patients and their families. It’s annoying because it gets in the way of communication, and many people feel inhibited from saying that they just don’t understand what the doctor is talking about. So on and on the doctor drones, assuming the absence of questions from the other side means both are communicating. Some doctors do this more than others, of course, but I think it’s a problem for all of us to some degree.

Lately, though, I’ve wondered if talking in medical jargon means thinking in medical jargon. After all, an old theory among linguists, the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, proposes that language literally is the stuff of thought, that we think in language, or at least in linguistic categories. A corollary to this notion is that people with very divergent languages probably think in very divergent ways.

George Orwell, in his famous novel 1984, clearly was a Whorf-Sapir believer. Here is what he has to say about Newspeak, the new language invented by the state (Ingsoc) to control thought by driving out traditional language, or Oldspeak:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought–that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc–should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect method. This was done partly by the invention of new words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.”

That’s a chilling passage. But I think there is some truth to the notion that corrupting the speech easily leads to corrupting the speaker. Professional vocabulary — jargon — has its place when used among members of the profession. But when I hear doctors speaking entirely in mealy-mouthed or impenetrable jargon, both to patients and to each other, I wonder how clear their thinking is. For a doctor, plain speaking may be more than just good communication; it may be good for his or her brain.


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