Medical diphthongs, or ‘a’ before ‘e’ (except when it’s just ‘e’)

Credit: Claudio Divizia/Terry Murray

Claudio Divizia/Terry Murray

To “ae” or not to “ae”—that was indeed the question put to Dr. Anne Curzan (PhD) by the “Department of Orthopaedic Surgery” at a medical school recently.

Dr. Curzan,  professor of English at the University of Michigan, where she also holds appointments in linguistics and the School of Education, spelled out her reasons for coming down on the side of the ‘ae’ vowel diphthong in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The unnamed medical school department consulted her because the department wanted to retain the diphthong, but there was “a higher level administrative decision” to drop it. The department argued that ‘orthopaedic’ is the only correct spelling for who its members are.

Dr. Curzan said she sided with the “department members’ right to spell orthopaedic as they wish,” not because they are right and the adminstration is wrong, and not deferring to the roots of the word, which she called “a poor justification.”

Her reason for agreeing to the diphthong was based on an interesting combination of prevailing standards and human (or at least professional) rights.

Both spellings are included as standard in most major dictionaries, she said, although orthopaedic is more British and orthopedic is more American.

“Orthopaedic appears to be standard in the profession, on both sides of the pond (e.g., the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics*). This reason alone seems to me enough to justify using the spelling in the name of the department.”

[*This journal does indeed exist with this spelling—about which, more below.]

“There are good reasons to let communities have a say in the terms used to refer to them.” – Dr. Anne Curzan (PhD), professor of English at the University of Michigan

And orthopedic surgeons should be able to call themselves “orthopaedic surgeons” if they want to, she added: “More fundamentally, I think there are good reasons to let communities have a say in the terms used to refer to them.”

On the other hand, Dr. Curzan said spelling pediatrics without the diphthong seems to have been accepted—in the U.S. anyway. (The Canadian Paediatric Society embraces the diphthong.)

Which is peculiar when you consider that the term “orthopaedics” was initially coined by French physician Dr. Nicholas Andry in 1741 to refer exclusively to the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders in children—ortho- (straight) and paedeia (rearing/education of children).

“This semantic argument … will probably nag us till Nicolas Andry rises from his grave.” -Dr. Hugh Watts, pediatric orthopedic surgeon

In fact, the surgeon who wrote the history of the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (or its first 25 years anyway, from 1971-1996), for which the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics is the official journal, made that very point.

“Clearly, the term pediatric orthopedics is a tautology since ‘orthopaedics’ has to do with children,” wrote Dr. Hugh Watts. “It was only later, as musculoskeletal surgery of all types co-opted the term ‘orthopaedics’ as its own that the additional modifier of pediatric became a necessity.

“The debate concerning the use of ‘paediatrics’ versus ‘pediatrics’ was long ago settled in the USA in the interests of brevity (as similarly shown by the usage of hematology, fetus, and esophagus versus haematology, foetus and oesophagus, etc.). This debate between the usage of ‘orthopedics’ versus ‘orthopaedics,’ however, continues, and the latter is usually combined with ‘pediatric,’ rather than ‘paediatric’ (which the purists who insist on orthopaedics should equally insist on).”

But, he conceded, “this semantic argument … will probably nag us till Nicolas Andry rises from his grave.”~TM


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