• Holly Hosler

Spelling the Speciality that Handles Bone & Joint Care

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Does your health care organization use "orthopaedics" or "orthopedics"? Does it matter?

Debates about the term orthopedics itself have supposedly flourished since the 1830s, when surgeons began performing orthopedic procedures in England. (My blogging software autocorrects me when I type orthopaedic, so I will primarily use orthopedic in this article and, if I write for you, whatever your organization prefers.)

Professional orthopedic associations in the U.S. as well as the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery all use the ae-form. In Old English, ae was a single letter known as aesc, pronounced "ash" like the tree. Some Northern European languages still have aesc in their alphabets, and many fonts, and certainly all of the standard ones, allow you to render aesc as a single character like this: æ.

Aesc is the letter used in English to render the Greek combination of letters alpha (a) and iota (i) used in the transliterated Greek word paidon (child) and paideia, a word associated with bringing up children and enculturating them to be good members of society. In fact, orthopaedics is a compound of ortho-, meaning "straight," and "paidon." It's a term coined in 1741 by Nicholas Andry, a French physician, as orthopédie, and it referred to the setting of children straight by preventing or correcting bone deformities.

Now you can see why there would be confusion; should the English spelling of the word follow the Greek (orthopaedics) or the French (orthopedics)? It's worth noting that the Greek paidon either becomes "paed" or "ped" when compounded into an English word. However, when it's rendered as "ped," it mimics the Latin word pedibus, or feet. The Latin root word for feet is ped, so we have words like pedestrian, centipede and, of course, biped and quadruped.

In the 1920s, Arthur Rocyn Jones, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, wrote a letter published in the British Medical Journal explaining the etymology of orthopaedics, noting it was an invention of Dr. Andry nearly two centuries earlier and had since expanded its meaning to encompass care for both adults and children. However, Dr. Jones pointed out that spelling the word as orthopedics added confusion because it made people think the speciality dealt only with feet. (Admittedly, I made that mistake myself early in my career.)

However, some scholars such as the Greek surgeon Dr. Nikolaos Christodoulou argue that orthopedics is more properly a compound of ortho- and the Greek word for foot, which is transliterated as podia. Versions of orthopedic abound in Classical Greek (thanks in part to Homer) and the word transliterated as orthopodousin even appears in the Bible - it means "walk uprightly" in Galatians 2:14. Such a rendition of the word is fitting, as orthopedic surgeons strive to help their patients walk uprightly in a literal sense. We even use the term orthopod as slang to refer to such a surgeon, which is more coherent if -pod refers to foot rather than child (the latter would make the term orthopaed). Dr. Christodoulou says it would not have been out of the ordinary for the ancient Greeks to substitute an epsilon (e) for the omicron (o) in the root word -pod, giving us orthopedic.

While orthopaedics tends to be the standard usage in the UK and for all of the professional societies, most American hospitals prefer the snappier and simpler transliteration of the French (and perhaps the correct Greek word): orthopedics. One has to admit: From a marketing perspective, it's less clunky than the alternative. If you are in need of outstanding copy to help market your healthcare services, consider hiring freelance writer Holly Hosler. Email or call 443-253-3897, and let's discuss your needs.

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