Medical Lexicography in the 21st Century

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Medical Lexicography in the 21st Century2019-03-24T08:10:32+00:00

Medical lexicography in the 21st century

Medical lexicography in the 21st century Samuel Johnson

Medical Lexicography in the 21st century: Samuel Johnson, father of lexicography

Lexicography is the act, activity, or art of compiling dictionaries. A lexicographer is, per Dr Samuel Johnson*… a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the origin, and … signification of words.

*(1709-1784) Dr Johnson was arguably England’s most distinguished man of letters. He wrote A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship in history

Medical lexicography then, is the act, activity, or art of compiling medical dictionaries. A medical lexicographer is a writer of medical dictionaries. There are no formal programs that specifically teach medical lexicography or confer degrees therein. However, having been engaged in writing medical dictionaries since 1984, it seems reasonable to regard myself as a medical lexicographer.

From this armchair, there seem to be two types of medical lexicographers: team lexicographers and maverick lexicographers.

Team lexicographers work for a medical publisher and define biomedical and scientific terms deemed important enough by experts, consultants and contributors to warrant inclusion in the next edition of a long established* medical dictionary. Team lexicographers cobble together definitions, pass them to their physician or scientist experts to verify and validate content, then add them to next edition.

*Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary–first published in 1890; Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing and the Health Professions (1982)Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (1911)Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary (1940). Major, built from the ground up, medical dictionaries are rarities, given the length of time required to bring them to market and the uncertain ROI (return on investment). They are risky ventures at best, and financial fiascos at worst. As an example of such seemingly good ideas gone badly wrong, one can cite the International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology (IDMB) published by John Wiley & Sons in 1986. It cost Wiley millions, and required 10 years from blank page to shipped product. It was a 3-volume affair with an eye-watering pricetag–I paid $300 for mine–for a lexicon that had 180,000 definitions in an era when the Dorland’s had 110,000 terms for $40. The IDMB didn’t make it to a second edition. Wiley probably lost their shirts on the venture, given that they sold their entire medical division to Churchill shortly thereafter.

Maverick medical lexicographers (MMLs) are herein defined as physicians or scientists who have collected terminology in their area of interest and decided that writing a dictionary was a good idea. MMLs shoulder the bulk of the work and manage to convince a publisher to assign an already overworked editor to add the project to their “list” and publish it to an underwhelmed audience. One can go to Amazon’s search window and type in “Dictionary of…” to find what’s on offer by MMLs. The Dictionary of Modern Medicine began as and continues to be the work of a single MML.

My 3-plus decades as a “harmless drudge” have given me a unique perspective. I believe that medical lexicography, whilst relevant in the 20th century, is losing its way in the 21st century.


• Outdated interfaces

• Inefficient retrieval of information–text vs database

• Need for IT-friendly universal (interspecialty) syntax

Example Muscular dystrophy—Duchenne type (good) vs. Duchenne muscular dystrophy (not as good)

• Need to expand reach.

Subject matter poorly covered in current medical dictionaries: aerospace medicine, ethics, forensics, human rights, imaging, managed care, medical slang, sport medicine, transfusion medicine, transplant medicine

• Need to replace subjective classifications with objective classifications

• Need for a deadpool for retired terminology

Most terms have a life cycle. The norm in medical dictionaries is to simply delete them, rather than to archive them in some way for those who need to analyse vintage medical publications