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Review of  Word Formation and Transparency in Medical English

Reviewer: Bruno O. Maroneze
Book Title: Word Formation and Transparency in Medical English
Book Author: Pius Ten Hacken Renáta Panocová
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 28.79

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Word Formation and Transparency in Medical English”, edited by Pius ten Hacken and Renáta Panocová, contains eight contributions (besides an introduction) on medical terminology in English, divided in two parts: the first four chapters with a monolingual perspective, and the last four dealing with translation issues. As one reads in the introduction, most contributions “are based on presentations at the Seminar ‘Word formation and transparency in Medical English’, organized by the editors at the 12th Conference of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE) in Košice” (p. 10).

Medical language use is an important research field within current Linguistics, comprising studies on doctor-patient interactions and on morphological and lexical matters (as treated in this book). In the introduction, the editors explain what they understand by ‘Medical English’, ‘Word Formation’ and ‘Transparency’, concepts that will be important in most (if not all) the chapters. In particular, transparency is opposed to motivation and iconicity: “The degree of motivation concerns the extent to which the SPEAKER [emphasis added] is guided to use this expression for the instrument it refers to” (p. 7), while “[t]he degree of transparency concerns the extent to which the READER or HEARER [emphasis added] is helped by the form in the task of determining the meaning” (p. 7). Iconicity is the idea that “more complex concepts have longer names” (p. 7), and is independent of speaker and hearer.

In Chapter One, entitled ‘Taxonomy and Transparency in International Pharmaceutical Nomenclature’, Rachel Bryan describes the naming system employed by the World Health Organization in creating International Nonproprietary Names (INN). After this thorough description, the author discusses the importance of transparency in this system.
Chapter Two is entitled ‘Term Variation in the Psychiatric Domain: Transparency and Multidimensionality’, by Pilar León-Araúz. The author correlates term variation and transparency in a collection of terms denoting psychiatric conditions, showing that variants activate different motivating dimensions, like ‘discoverer’, ‘symptom’, ‘cause’, and ‘result’.

Pius ten Hacken, in Chapter Three (‘Naming Devices in Middle-Ear Surgery: a Morphological Analysis’), correlates morphological structure and transparency in a collection of terms from the domain of middle-ear surgery. He emphasizes the distinction between transparency and motivation, relating transparency to Jackendoff’s (1975) redundancy rules, and showing possible correspondences between transparency and compounding structures. Also emphasized is the importance of domain knowledge in the evaluation of transparency.
Chapter Four, ‘Transparency and Use of Neoclassical Word Formation in Medical English’, by Renáta Panocová, also deals with the correlation between transparency and morphology, but focuses on neoclassical word formation. She proposes a continuum of transparency: neoclassical terms are the most transparent structure, followed closely by their English equivalents; abbreviations and, lastly, eponyms are less transparent.

The last four chapters deal with English in comparison to other languages. In Chapter Five (‘Transparency of Nominal Compounds in Medical English: Problems in their Translation into Spanish and Slovak’, by Nina Patton, María Fernández Parra and Rocío Pérez Tattam), the authors propose a semantic categorization for Noun + Noun (N + N) compounds in English and then try to correlate these categories to the way each compound is translated into Spanish and Slovak. “The results seem to suggest that there is a link between the semantic relation of the English compound and the syntactic structure of the translation” (p. 119).

Chapter six (‘Word Formation Strategies in Translated Popular Medical Texts in Turkey’, by Sevda Pekcoşkun) also focuses heavily on translation issues, specifically on the issue of translating popular medical texts. Borrowing is the most used translation procedure in the studied corpus. An online survey also was used to identify the reception of the translations by the general public.

The last two chapters deal with English in comparison to Polish. Chapter Seven (‘Compression as a Factor behind the Borrowing of English Medical Terminology into Polish’, by Mariusz Górnicz) brings to light the concept of compression, which, in terminology, “refers to the condensation of a term’s surface structure relative to its conceptual content” (p. 161). The main thesis of the chapter is that borrowing from English to Polish is favored if the English structures present types of compression that are difficult to translate into Polish.

Chapter Eight, the last one, is entitled ‘Compounding Properties and Translation Methods of Terms in the Domain of Infectious Diseases’, by Szymon Machowski. The author analyses English compound words in the studied domain regarding the onomasiological dimension and the formal (morphological) dimension; he then observes the translation equivalents in Polish and finds some tendencies, like the fact that “a number of English neoclassical compounds can be almost literally translated into Polish using highly cohesive compounds” (p. 195).

The last pages of the book include a list of contributors (p. 201) and and author index (p. 203-209).


As is common in the case of edited books, each chapter may be evaluated by itself, although some common features may be pointed out.

As for common, general features, it must be pointed out that the book is an important contribution to the study of transparency. Linguists and terminologists who need to deal with the concept of transparency and its consequences in lexical/terminological semantics will find here many examples and theoretical support.

Another important aspect of the book is that it contributes to making public, in the English language, the works of many Eastern European linguists, like Furdík (2008) and Horecký (1982), cited in Chapter Four, and others.

Although most chapters present a strong concern with morphological theory in relation to semantics, Chapter Five, especially, presents a very thorough list of semantic relations between the constituents of compounds, adapted from the ideas of Jackendoff (2010), which can also serve as a methodology for further research on other languages. Methodological rigor, by the way, is another important trait of all the book’s contributions.

As is common in some approaches to terminology, some contributions, especially the ones dealing with translation issues, have a prescriptive orientation. This is particularly clear in Chapter Seven: “Science is supposed to describe the world in an objective manner and so the vehicles of this description, i.e. terms, ought to be precise, objective and impartial” (p. 166). The author brings out these prescriptive ideas in the context of the discussion on metaphorical terms. It should be pointed out, however, that Terminology theory, especially after works like Temmerman (2000), acknowledges the importance of metaphor in scientific discourse, although the subject is still controversial.

Although the contributions are descriptively thorough in methodology and results, it should be pointed that, on a more theoretical level, the discussions on the concept of transparency would certainly benefit from greater study of another related concept, that is, compositionality. Whether a compound is more or less transparent is related to the ease of ‘computing’ the meaning of the whole regarding the meaning of its parts. For instance, in Chapter Four, Panocová presents a four-dimensional description of the synonymous terms ‘otitis externa’ and ‘swimmer’s ear’, arguing that both terms share the semantic features ‘Process of infection affecting the ear’, and that the second term includes the semantic feature ‘typical for people who often swim’. However, one could refute this argument by saying that nothing in the expression ‘swimmer’s ear’ refers to an infection (it could be a cosmetic condition, like ‘shoemaker’s chest’, synonym for ‘pectus excavatum’). The interpretation of ‘swimmer’s ear’ is, therefore, not fully compositional; could it also be considered nontransparent because of that? Would transparency be an onomasiological reflex of (conceptual) compositionality? In what way are both concepts related? In Chapter Seven, Górnicz cites an ISO Norm which defines transparency as the situation when “the meaning of a term of appellation can be deduced from its parts” (p. 161), a definition which is remarkably similar to that of compositionality. Theoretical discussions like these are unfortunately lacking in this book.

I would like also to point out two other specific issues in Chapter One, that do not compromise the quality of the work: firstly, the author says that “[i]n antiquity, medications were named after the gods, e.g. morphine after Morpheus, the god of dreams and anandamide after Sanskrit Ananda, ‘bliss, delight’ (OED)” (p. 13). However, the two substances mentioned were isolated and received their names in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Secondly, in the description of the elements of the INN nomenclature (p. 19), the author mentions a “random, fantasy prefix” and then, some lines below, refers to it as a “meaningless prefix”. It would be more properly referred to as an unmotivated, arbitrary prefix, as it can be argued that it does bear some kind of meaning.

“Word Formation and Transparency in Medical English” is, therefore, a valuable work for those interested in lexical and terminological studies, especially for the deep descriptive and methodological quality of its contributions.


Furdík, Juraj. 2008. Teória lexikálnej motivácie v slovnej zásobe [Theory of lexical motivation in the lexis]. Ološtiak, Martin (ed.). Košice: vydavatel’stvo LG.

Horecký, Ján. 1982. Systémový prístup k terminológii [Systemic approach to terminology]. Kultúra slova 16: 333-338.

Jackendoff, Ray. 1975. Morphological and Semantic Regularities in the Lexicon. Language 51: 639-671.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2010. Meaning and the Lexicon: The Parallel Architecture 1975-2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Temmerman, Rita. 2000. Towards New Ways of Terminology Description: The Sociocognitive Approach. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Johns Benjamins.
Bruno O. Maroneze completed his Ph.D. in the University of Sao Paulo in 2011. His Ph.D. thesis focuses on Brazilian Portuguese neologisms formed by suffixation. His main research interests are on Lexicology, specifically word formation, neologisms and diachronic studies of the lexicon. He is currently teaching in the Faculty of Communication, Arts and Letters of the Universidade Federal da Grande Dourados, MS, Brazil.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781443880022
Pages: 205
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