Published 9/1/2014

Reader Asks “Why Orthop(a)edics?”

Which medical specialty cares for the iris, cornea, and retina? Can you spell it?

If you answered “opthalmology,” you are incorrect. But you’re in good company. In reality, ophthalmology is such a consonant-riddled, cluster-yuck of word that virtually everyone has trouble spelling it. In fact, so many of the general public think it’s “opthalmology” that ophthalmologists often embrace the misspelling to appeal to their communities.

So why do we, in a field that stirs similar confusion and questions over its nomenclature, insist upon orthopaedic surgery? Almost every other medical specialty in the United States has abandoned their pseudo-Grecoisms in favor of something more practical. Even paediatrics, our etymologic half-sibling, dropped the “a” more than 150 years ago. Are we so self-important that we wish to assert an air of pompous properness? Or perhaps we are so backward-thinking that we refuse to evolve with the times?

In 2014, a rapidly growing number of patients will find their providers online. Patients routinely search “orthopedics,” looking for that 5-star, Yelp-certified, Zagat-rated surgeon. A Google search for “orthopaedic surgery” returns just 816,000 results, while one for “orthopedic surgery” returns 2.5 million results. Whether or not we insist on being called orthopaedic surgeons, the public has largely decided for us—in favor of orthopedics.

For years, my email signature, white coat, and curriculum vitae were emblazoned with the title “Orthopaedics.” I had even taken it one obnoxious step farther, invoking the æ or “ash” ligature to truly distinguish myself.

Some appreciated the “retro” look; some admired the disciplined adherence to Latinized diphthong convention. Yet for all its gravitas, there was a nagging feeling of pretentiousness, of what Noah Webster denounced as the “clamour of pedantry,” or perhaps what my intern meant when he said, “yeah, that’s kind of douchy.”

We need to level with our patients, to simplify things wherever possible and to reach out to them on their terms. There’s a good reason that otolaryngologists go routinely by ENT, that esophagus no longer starts with an “o,” and that “cure” and “gonorrhoea” can be googled without having to buy a Nordic keyboard.

We are surgeons. We are educated and are capable of grand verbosity and unfettered pontification among our own kind. But we also pride ourselves on being straight with our patients, to cut through the pretense and fluff, and to communicate what really matters.

Orthopedic surgery. It’s simple, elegant, easy to spell, and consistent with our mission of accessible, patient-centered care. And we’ll never again be interrupted by that insufferable Microsoft paperclip asking “Did you mean ‘orthopedics’?” Why yes, we did.
Timothy T. Roberts, MD

Albany, N.Y.

Setting Now Straight
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