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November 24, 1978

Vogue Words—Ectopic Language

JAMA. 1978;240(22):2439-2440. doi:10.1001/jama.1978.03290220051015

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking Glass

High on the list of professional attributes physicians value most are independent judgment and scientific bent. Yet when it comes to one fact of professional life, communication, both characteristics are frequently (and simultaneously) suspended. All too often we find unexamined adherence to prevalent terminology and ill-considered adoption of attractive new terms that may be scientifically questionable.

Language can convey meaning accurately when everyone agrees on what the words themselves signify. By common usage, when we read or say "America," we think "United States." Everyone knows this is flagrantly erroneous, but no one is misled. (Even Canadians call us "Americans.") Yet for students and others not party to local or general convention, terminology can confuse rather than clarify.

This is