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A New Major Medical DictionaryJoe Segen2018-05-29T00:57:20+00:00
A New Major Medical Dictionary
Part 2 A solution in the pipeline
There are 2 ways to do anything:
The right way and the wrong way.
We usually don’t realize it’s the wrong way until we’re elbows deep in the muck…by which time it’s too late, we’re galloping off in the wrong direction, hired the wrong people, bought the wrong supplies, leased the wrong space in the wrong place, committed to an ill-conceived plan, overspent the budget and torpedoed any chance of success.
I write medical dictionaries.
Don’t laugh…like telephone books, somebody has to write them. The person who single-handedly shoulders such a daunting task is either insane…naive…or both.
William Chester Minor, an American surgeon and major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary was by all accounts, barking mad…I’d like to think I was merely naive when I embarked on this journey
I began compiling material for this project in 1984. The word Modern figured so prominently in the title of the then nascent work (The Dictionary of Modern Medicine), that I started with a blank sheet of paper.
I deliberately ignored material that one would expect to find in the standard medical dictionaries–each had decades of experience, consultants aplenty in every field of expertise and a support team of secretaries and sundry Hey You’s.
Without a niche–in my case, modern–it would take years to build a viable product. I was–and still am–one guy. In retrospect–despite having a niche–I wasn’t naive…I was insane.
But, I reasoned (as madmen are wont to do), I wasn’t doing all of medicine…just the new stuff. I confined the rapidly growing pool to terms that I came across in journals of recent vintage. That way, I knew a particular term was in active use (i.e., “modern”)–unlike the thousands of obsolete or senescing terms which are carried forward from one edition of the venerated medical lexicons to the next.
It turns out that I’d accidentally stumbled on the right way–assuming continued sales and interest are a benchmark thereof–to write a new medical dictionary. New medical dictionaries don’t come along too often; ones that stand the test of time, less so.
Sometime in the mid-1970s–and I freely admit I’m piecing parts of this story together–somebody at John Wiley & Sons in New York decided they should put their corporate muscle behind developing the mother of all medical dictionaries. Big name professors were recruited from both sides of the pond and both sides of the Channel. The busy bees began with a core of ageing medical products, including the four-volume Dictionnaire Français de Médicine et de Biologie which–quelle surprise–needed translating.
It was the first new medical dictionary to be compiled since the Taber’s was published in the 1940s. It turned out–with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight–Wiley had figured out the wrong way to write a new medical dictionary.
After 10 years of compiling, Wiley et al had nearly 200,000 terms, a fair few of which hadn’t been used for decades, making it big, but not particularly useful. They christened it The International Dictionary of Medicine and Biology (IDMB) and called it a wrap. It was a 3-volume behemoth with an eye-watering price of $300, at a time when the Dorland’s had 115,000 entries and cost about $40.
I doubt Wiley sold anywhere near the 10,000 copies they needed to move just to break even, assuming (and I believe I’m being conservative) the project only cost $3 million–based on my highly speculative estimate. The IDMB never made it to a second edition.
I’m pretty sure they lost their shirts.
Wiley subsequently sold its medical division to Churchill, which pared the IDMB into a one-volume affair. It, too, lasted one edition. You can indulge your curiosity about the IDMB on the cheap and pick up a used copy on amazon or ebay, at one time for as little as $0.24 (US) or £2.68 (UK); the price has risen over time.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, I began compiling The Dictionary of Modern Medicine (DMM).
My project was Wiley’s diametric opposite. I had no budget, no staff, no equipment, no core dictionary from which to start, and fortunately, no one to tell me what to include or not…or tell me how daft undertaking such a monumental project really was.
I started with a blank piece of paper, and settled on 3 rules:
• Current Use Rule To be included as an entry, the term must have appeared in a recent published work (including the internet), journal* or textbook. A lot of terms get stuck in lexical limbo and have been carried forward in the above-mentioned major medical dictionaries as if they’re still in active use.
*I included “throwaway” journals, advertising blurbs for drugs, biomedical news of interest appearing in the mass media.
• All-Inclusive Rule Any term that impacts–even obliquely–on medicine has been included. This way, no one can criticise my leaning toward a particular specialty–e.g., pathology.
The downside of that is I’ve had to relearn all of medicine…again (once was hard enough). True, one can certainly question inclusion of CYA–cover your ass, the principle of liability limitation in medical malpractice, but CYA is the way doctors practice in the US (not to mention that CYA appeared in the past in the Journal of the American Medical Association).
Are serial killers fair game? Yes, via Forensic psychiatry
Waste management? Yes, via Public health
Automatic weapons? Yes, via Emergency medicine…
• Source Rule All terms and definitions come from some place; the source should be quoted.
I’ve not forgotten I’m a one-man show, which raises the credibility question. I mean, really…one guy covering all of biology and medicine?
The only way around that criticism is to do what the major medical dictionaries have never done…quote the source. At last count in May of 2018, this work had 46,671 references*…which is far more than are found in the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, or the Taber’s Medical Dictionary (DSTMs).
*Mostly genes and molecular biology, for the record. Quoting references results in a far more authoritative product than could a board of so-called experts who don’t quote any sources for definitions. But how does the DMM–a one-man show–stack up against DSTMs? The DMM still differs substantially from the DSTMs, as I’ve maintained the focus on modern terminology, so the comparison is misplaced…for the moment; I’m slowly incorporating terms that one expects to find in the other major dictionaries.
It became increasingly apparent that I couldn’t manage the volume of information outside of a database (think, a 35,000 page MS Word file). So, in 2005, I began the tedium of porting the data into FileMaker Pro, a popular database (I finished in 2014).
The pool of entries in the DMM database is growing at a rate of up to a thousand/month. Because it focuses on recent additions to the working language of medicine and—except for The Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine, which is available electronically—has yet to converge on the turf of the traditional medical dictionaries, my products currently supplement the above works.
For criticisms of the current medical dictionaries, see the page titled Medical Dictionaries in the 21st Century, which the reader will find in the pulldown under Introduction, also on this page. In a further opinion piece, I’ll delineate why I believe that text-driven medical dictionaries are anachronisms and databases are the only way that medical lexicography can “deliver the goods” to physicians, biomedical scientists and advanced health professionals.