What’s up, Doc? Health talk in Yanks & Brits


I’ve recently recovered from a horrible episode of strep throat: that thing where you feel as though you’ve swallowed a chandelier-full of broken glass. “Strep?” asked some of my English friends, “What’s that? We don’t have that over here.” Well, they presumably do, at least sometimes: streptococcus infections don’t just confine themselves to American throats, as far as I know. Every so often in the UK, like a Scottish lake monster or a moor-dwelling bear-cat, an especially nasty infection of the gullet is spotted in the wilderness and given a medical-sounding name — “tonsillitis”, most likely. But rare is the GP who’s sufficiently convinced they’re in the presence of a genuine illness that warrants some kind of treatment — let alone its own official name. The American physician, by contrast, has an arsenal of tests, prescriptions and monikers lined up and at the ready to label and treat every germ and condition that dares to cross her threshold, even before the disease has had a chance to shake hands and introduce itself formally. Welcome to one of the great differences between the Yanks and the Brits: health talk. Actually — just health.

Mono* is a good one: you might be met with a blank stare if you complain of that singular affliction in England. There, you might be granted the more romantically descriptive diagnosis of glandular fever — but only if you’re at death’s door and you’ve complained loudly and often enough, and “swollen glands” just isn’t cutting it …

In America, you’re sick. Maybe really sick — and no-one wants to be anywhere near you. Please stay home, for everyone’s sake. We don’t want your germs. When you’re a Brit you’re ill. Maybe really ill. But you’ll keep going into the office, no matter how ill you feel, and that’s what all your colleagues expect of you: Buck up, show some stamina, and stop sniffling and whinging. Of course, that’s only unless or until you’ve been given a lesser-spotted diagnosis or it’s time to call an ambulance…

However, feeling or being sick in England is a very different story. That word spells vomit, so everyone move out the way fast …

Does your child have any itchy butt – or bum? If he’s called Junior, he’s probably got pinworm. If he’s called Prince George, he has most likely picked up a case of threadworm. Go wriggle.

If you tell an American you have a verruca on your foot, they might think you’re weird for naming your plantar wart after a character in a movie**. Yanks don’t generally have verrucas or veronicas that need treating, unless they’re in pre-school. But even then, they don’t generally have them.

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It can get confusing if you’re on the wrong side of the pond when your bodily functions start to go awry. Here’s some terminology  to watch out for.

Surgery / Office: Don’t panic if you’re sent to the surgery when you come a cropper in those green and pleasant lands. All GPs have surgeries, whether or not they’re actual surgeons. They’re not necessarily going to remove one of your limbs.

Operating theatre / OR: When the kind English doctor tells you you’re going into theatre, she means you’re going under the knife, not that you have talent. Start counting backwards …

A & E or Casualty / ER: When you’re hit by a lorry, ask for the nearest A & E — and no, that’s not a TV channel over there. Also, just because you’re going to casualty, doesn’t mean you are one …  Big accident in the Big Apple? No worries: head to the nearest ER, where you might spot Dr. Ross and company.

Surgical spirit / rubbing alcohol: When the English doctor asks if you have surgical spirit in your medicine cabinet, he’s not asking about your positive attitude. He is a Brit, after all. Brits know what alcohol is, but it’s strictly for pouring down their gullets …

Chemist / pharmacist; chemist / drug store: The British chemist will dispense your medicine at the chemist, but don’t expect to see him bent over a Bunsen burner.

Plaster / band-aid: If you give a Brit a Band-Aid, he’ll know it’s Christmas …

GP / primary care physician: In England, Dr. Smith, your GP (general practitioner), will refer you to Mr. Jones, a consultant or specialist. The American Mr. Jones — an eye doctor or other specialist physician — prefers to be addressed as Dr., thank you very much. (See Glossophilia’s earlier post on addressing docs trans-Atlantically, “Why are you operating on me, Mister?”). After all, they are all doctors — probably better known as physicians in America.

Gynie or gynae / OBGYN: A British lady visits her gynae (short for gynaecologist) for girlie matters. Her American counterpart prefers the five-letter acronym to name her designated specialist, whether or not she plans to use the OB** part of the service.

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Just like people, drugs and medications on different sides of the Atlantic are mixed in terms of how well they’re understood on foreign shores. Sometimes they’re no different, but more often than not they have completely different names, in both brand and generic forms. Two of the most widely used over-the-counter pain-killers have completely different names — and reputations — on different sides of the pond. Acetaminophen, the generic form of America’s Tylenol, is known in the UK as paracetamol (with brand names Panadol or Calpol). Whereas Tylenol can be had like candy — the more you buy, the deeper the discount, paracetamol can be harder to come by, at least in large quantities. Brits have been known to don disguises or hire accomplices to purchase more than their daily allowance of the rationed wonder drug. (Quantities at point of sale are strictly limited in the UK, due to the high risk of overdose.) Ibuprofen is a generic name familiar to both Yanks and Brits with headaches, but these patients part company when naming their preferred brands, buying it as Motrin or Advil in the U.S. and as Nurofen or Anadin in Great Britain.

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Brits and Yanks can never agree on spelling, and medical terms are no exception. Here are some of the more common body parts and afflictions that might look to a Brit like spelling mistakes on Dr. Ross’s script (and by that I mean his prescription — not his screenplay). We Brits love to add in those ‘a’s, or occasionally ‘o’s.

anemia (U.S.)    vs.   anaemia (UK)
anesthetic    vs.  anaesthetic
cesarean/cesarian  vs.  caesarean/caesarian
diarrhea   vs.    diarrhoea
esophagus   vs.   eosophagus
gynecology  vs.   gynaecology
hemoglobin   vs.    haemoglobin
hemophilia    vs.    haemophilia
hemorrhage  vs.    haemorrhage
hemorrhoid   vs.   haemorrhoid
homeopath  vs.   homoeopath
leukemia   vs.   leukaemia
orthopedic   vs.   orthopaedic
pediatric   vs.   paediatric

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Medical slang is where the fun starts. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, and other hospital and medical staff have to talk quickly: by saving syllables they’re saving lives, and that’s where all the abbreviations and snappy nicknames come into play. At least that’s what the TV medical soaps would have us believe. The reality of life on the rounds and on the wards is unfortunately quite different and much more humdrum. The long hours, annoying patients and trivial complaints are relieved only by a steady stream and healthy dose of in-jokes and black humor — and this is really where the slang comes into its own.  Thanks to the work of British doctor Adam Fox of St Mary’s Hospital in London, we are now privy to some of that wicked medical terminology and what it really means. Over a period of several years, Fox and his colleagues compiled a list of about 200 common medical slang terms and euphemisms in common use in British hospitals. How many of these have made it across the pond is anyone’s guess: American doctors – please enlighten us.

Below are some selected highlights from that list, prefaced by this strong disclaimer from Fox et al about the unsavory nature of much of this lingo. “Medical slang has a growing vocabulary, yet its use in Britain remains mostly undocumented and overlooked by mainstream medical literature. … Although often distasteful and derogatory, slang serves a purpose. Consequently, offense can be experienced by patients, health care professionals, and physicians alike. Many are unaware of its ferocity, and, in producing a comprehensive dictionary of terms, the authors intend no ill feeling: The terms do not represent their views, but merely reflect the reality of hospital medicine.” Read at your peril.

Air biscuit – a stool that floats
ATS – acute thespian syndrome
Betty – diabetic
Brown trout – a stool that won’t float, as opposed to the air biscuit that does
Cheerioma – patient with a highly aggressive malignant tumour
Code brown – fecal incontinence
Departure lounge – geriatric ward
Digging for worms – varicose vein surgery
Freud squad – psychiatrists
GOMER – get out of my emergency room (aimed at the frequent flyers)
OAP – overanxious patient or parent
PRATFO – patient reassured and told to fuck off
Treat ‘n’ Street – quick patient turnaround in A&E/ER
TTFO – Told To Fuck Off
TUBE – Totally Unnecessary Breast Examination
UBI – Unexplained Beer Injury
Whopper with Cheese (fat woman with thrush)

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* short for mononucleosis

** Veruca Salt is a character in the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was made into the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory 

*** Obstetrician

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