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Thread: Why do scientists use words they don't need to use?

  1. #61
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Otherwise, we very much try not to rely on non-verbals or euphemisms. Doctors are nowadays about the only people I know who are prepared to utter the word "dead", rather than the ghastly circumlocutions popular on TV shows ("slipped away", "passed on", etc). There's a whole other lecture on Breaking Bad News, but one of the basic messages when telling relatives that a loved one has died is that at some point you need to use the word "died", and then the word "dead". (I could tell you a horror story about a doctor who told some parents that their son had "gone", and they thought he'd been discharged from hospital.)

    ETA:
    So, just to feed back into the OP, there's an example of "scientists" (OK, medical doctors) using words that they really need to use, while others indulge in circumlocutions like "RIP" and "passed".
    Those circumlocutions are not just TV things: it's the way people generally speak, and not just in English. It is similar for other taboo subjects, like toilet words. In Japan as well, the only people who actually use words like "died" are doctors, statisticians, and journalists. With bathroom talk, doctors seem to have their own circumlocutions that somehow sound more scientific, like "bowel movement," but they never use the four letter word that starts with an S. But perhaps "bowel movement" is a US thing and not used in the UK.
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  2. #62
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    Those circumlocutions are not just TV things: it's the way people generally speak, and not just in English.
    But not the way doctors speak in real life under these circumstances, was my point. However, "dead" was the common usage in the UK for most of my lifetime, and still is among my generation and those older. My brother-in-law speaks affectionately about his "dead pal", for instance. And I once made a rather delicate American lady flinch and cry out when I mentioned that my father was dead - it was slightly trying to have to apologize for causing her distress, but I managed.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    With bathroom talk, doctors seem to have their own circumlocutions that somehow sound more scientific, like "bowel movement," but they never use the four letter word that starts with an S. But perhaps "bowel movement" is a US thing and not used in the UK.
    I love the phrase "bathroom talk", which I had not previously encountered. I'd have been hard pressed to work out its meaning without context. As I believe I've said before, in some context or another, my (non-medical) friends and I don't use "bathroom talk" circumlocutions, which I guess is why I find them a little twee. One of the more complex tasks in doctoring was trying to work out what particular form of words relating to bowel function would least discommode (if you'll pardon the pun) our patients. A lot of people in my part of the world would have no idea what a "bowel motion" is (and some no idea what their "bowel" is), and I recall having to ask a nurse what the difference betwen "number ones" and "number twos" was, because that's all a particular lady would confess to experiencing. I have, indeed, used the "S word" more than once when it was more important to reach an understanding than to avoid upsetting the patient. (And you'll see again how choice of word works, here - most people expect their doctor not to use "swear words", and a little thing like that can damage any trust that's being developed.)

    Grant Hutchison

  3. #63
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    Last time I saw a doctor I wasn't sure what terminology to use. I think I ended up using "pooh" as a fairly direct word that isn't quite as crude feeling as "the S word".

    I found it slightly disconcerting when the doctor used words like "tummy" rather than the more obvious terms for the relevant parts of the digestive system (it might even leave one wondering exactly which part they were referring to).

    (On the subject of "dead" I remember hearing a black American comedian describing how he was talking to an English woman about his father, and said "he dead". She replied, "surely you mean 'he died'?". "No ma'am, he died and now he dead.")

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    The "tummy" thing is interesting. I remember being both amused and reassured when one of my surgical colleagues used it while examining me after I presented with acute abdominal symptoms one morning.
    The problem is that many people don't actually know where their "abdomen" is, because they commonly use "stomach" as if it were a synonym - talking of an "upset stomach" when actually it's their intestines that are causing the symptoms. And doctors are reluctant to use "stomach" outside its strict anatomical application, because of the potential for confusion that brings. So they end up using a baby word to refer to the whole abdomen and all its contents.
    I remember being utterly baffled by a news report about an ex-footballer who had "a device in his stomach to make him vomit when he drank alcohol". It took me a while to deduce that he actually had an Antabuse implant in his abdominal wall, constantly releasing drug into his circulation - nothing to do with his anatomical stomach at all.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    The "tummy" thing is interesting. I remember being both amused and reassured when one of my surgical colleagues used it while examining me after I presented with acute abdominal symptoms one morning.
    The problem is that many people don't actually know where their "abdomen" is, because they commonly use "stomach" as if it were a synonym - talking of an "upset stomach" when actually it's their intestines that are causing the symptoms. And doctors are reluctant to use "stomach" outside its strict anatomical application, because of the potential for confusion that brings. So they end up using a baby word to refer to the whole abdomen and all its contents.
    That makes sense. I hear stories of doctors having cryptic notes for their patients (NFN, Normal For Norfolk) maybe they should have one to indicate they can safely use words like "abdomen" with this patient

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    That makes sense. I hear stories of doctors having cryptic notes for their patients (NFN, Normal For Norfolk) maybe they should have one to indicate they can safely use words like "abdomen" with this patient
    That'd be nice. When I first see a new provider, I try to let them know that I have some background in the medical (administration) field, so I'm comfortable with much of the terminology. But it's not always easy to pull this off without being branded as one of those patients: the hypochondriacs, doctor-wannabes, WebMD self-diagnosticians, Google experts, etc.
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  7. #67
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange View Post
    That makes sense. I hear stories of doctors having cryptic notes for their patients (NFN, Normal For Norfolk) maybe they should have one to indicate they can safely use words like "abdomen" with this patient
    Yeah, people have a lot of fun with those initialisms and cod-Latin disease names, but in forty years of looking at patients' notes, I never actually saw one used in writing. However, my aunt sent me a ghastly book a few years ago, written by a (IIRC) Canadian physician practising in the USA, entitled something like "The Secret Language Of Doctors", in which the writer retailed all sorts of horrible things he and his colleagues (allegedly) write about their patients and other colleagues. Almost any chapter in it would be enough to have a British doctor up before the General Medical Council for a professional misconduct hearing.

    But what you will find in patients' notes is a brief summary of any medical knowledge they might have - many referral letters open with things like, "This 50-year-old gentleman who works as an [X] and who has considerable experience of [Y] consulted me today ..." Detailing specific vocabulary is a bit too complicated, though. A person might know where their abdomen is, but be unable to point to their loin with any confidence, and have entirely the wrong idea of where their diaphragm is (especially if they ever had singing lessons).

    Grant Hutchison

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    To bring it back to the OPs concern, then, you are saying that there can be reasons an expert might choose the language they do, reasons that might not be apparent to a non-expert who might then, out of ignorance, conclude that unnecessarily complicated language was being used to try to impress. We also agree that sometimes there can indeed be language used strictly to impress, and that this is a mistake to be avoided because it serves as a barrier to good communication-- even among the experts themselves, and certainly between experts and non-experts. At the end of the day, it seems likely that few professional fields, outside of, perhaps, literary fields, devote enough resources to achieving good communication skills, since most of the effort goes into content rather than presentation. Then there is the educational field itself, which may err in the opposite extreme!

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    I witnessed a conversation at our astronomy club recently in which two very knowledgeable members were talking by each other on whether the apparent motion of Mercury was sidereally direct or retrograde during the recent transit. I think the problem was nuances in their choices of words.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hornblower View Post
    I witnessed a conversation at our astronomy club recently in which two very knowledgeable members were talking by each other on whether the apparent motion of Mercury was sidereally direct or retrograde during the recent transit. I think the problem was nuances in their choices of words.
    At your next meeting, ask those two what a "blue moon" is, and watch the sparks fly!

  11. #71
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    The "tummy" thing is interesting. I remember being both amused and reassured when one of my surgical colleagues used it while examining me after I presented with acute abdominal symptoms one morning.
    The problem is that many people don't actually know where their "abdomen" is, because they commonly use "stomach" as if it were a synonym - talking of an "upset stomach" when actually it's their intestines that are causing the symptoms. And doctors are reluctant to use "stomach" outside its strict anatomical application, because of the potential for confusion that brings. So they end up using a baby word to refer to the whole abdomen and all its contents.
    I'm sort of surprised about two things there. One is that I'm surprised that a lot of people don't know the word abdomen, and it has always been clear to me that whereas stomach has an ambiguous meaning, abdomen doesn't. But the other thing is, to me at least, "tummy" is just a baby word for "stomach," so to me tummy has the same ambiguity as stomach. When kids say "my tummy hurts" they mean what we say by "my stomach hurts," so I don't see how using "tummy" resolves anything. To me, it would just seem weird, as if the doctor said, "I see you have a boo boo on your hand." I guess I can understand it; it sounds a bit humorous and maybe takes away from the over-seriousness?
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  12. #72
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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    A person might know where their abdomen is, but be unable to point to their loin with any confidence, and have entirely the wrong idea of where their diaphragm is (especially if they ever had singing lessons).
    I think that "loin" is a problem in the same way that "stomach" is, because it is used with different meanings. The two meanings are both commonly known, because we use "sirloin" for beef, and also use "loincloth" or "fruit of his loins" to mean something very different. So as with stomach, it's unclear which is the "official" one (actually the flank).
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I'm sort of surprised about two things there. One is that I'm surprised that a lot of people don't know the word abdomen, and it has always been clear to me that whereas stomach has an ambiguous meaning, abdomen doesn't.
    Yeah. But there's a whole underprivileged tranche of society, at least in my part of the world, who are big consumers of health-care but very low on what you and I would think of as being fairly basic vocabulary.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    But the other thing is, to me at least, "tummy" is just a baby word for "stomach," so to me tummy has the same ambiguity as stomach. When kids say "my tummy hurts" they mean what we say by "my stomach hurts," so I don't see how using "tummy" resolves anything. To me, it would just seem weird, as if the doctor said, "I see you have a boo boo on your hand." I guess I can understand it; it sounds a bit humorous and maybe takes away from the over-seriousness?
    The thing is that "tummy" is pretty much never used with any anatomical specificity. The kid who says that their tummy hurts means that they have pain in the front of their abdomen, nothing more specific. "I need to examine your tummy," tells the patient it's time to pull up their shirt and open their trousers. "I need to examine your stomach," sends that message to some people, but conjures up at least transient images of surgery or endoscopy for others.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I think that "loin" is a problem in the same way that "stomach" is, because it is used with different meanings. The two meanings are both commonly known, because we use "sirloin" for beef, and also use "loincloth" or "fruit of his loins" to mean something very different. So as with stomach, it's unclear which is the "official" one (actually the flank).
    As it turns out, people sometimes also thing their loins are the same thing as their groins, or are located in a band just above the pelvic rim, or between the pelvic rim and the greater trochanter of the femur (either of which they may referred to as the "hip bone"). They also sometimes think their genitals are their groins. In the case of the alternative loins, the influence of "loin-cloth" and "gird your loins" is probably significant; in the case of the alternative groins, it's probably related to some euphemistic use of "groin". Or so it seems to me.

    You'd be amazed how prevalent these confusions and misuses are. One of the first thing I was taught as a medical student was that whenever a patient uses any anatomical word to designate the location of their pain, you say, "Could you point to it?" As well as clarifying their meaning (I once spoke to a woman who thought the "bridge of my nose" was the little central groove in her upper lip, technically called the philtrum), the way in which a person points to a pain can tell you a lot about its nature.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Squink View Post
    Sometimes you need the words. AFAIK, There's no simple English for Markov Chain, or even Abelian group.
    I think "Abelian" is just easier for some people to say than "commutative".

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