Medical Spanish


When I was eighteen, I used to take the bus from the University of San Francisco downtown to 450 Sutter Street, the medical building.


I was interpreting for some of the doctors in the 450 Sutter  building.


The physicians would occasionally treat braceros and other Hispanic patients.


I assisted those patients in accounts of their injuries, mostly received while doing agricultural work, or becoming embarazada, pregnant.


The words the patients used to describe their medical problems were, of course, simple, direct and basic. They didn’t talk like doctors, and I interpreted their actual words rather than  using the Latin and Greek terms for the anatomy that the medical personnel used.

culo o vaca


When I asked, “¿Dónde le duele?” (Where does it hurt?) the braceros didn’t say, “I fell out of the tree and hurt my rabadilla (coccyx),” or “My ano (anus) is sore.”  They used the word culo (ass) for both situations. A farola is a lamp stand or lamp post.


I knew the word culo ever since I had heard one Guatemalan say to another, “Dale una vuelta y metételo en el culo.”  (Turn it around and stick it up your ass.)

enfermera culo


So, in learning medical Spanish, it might be best to learn the basic words for the anatomy and the learned terms. That way, you can talk to both patients and the doctors.


The good news is that scientific, learned terms are quite close to each other from language to language. Almost all of the scientific terms in any language are recognizable to an English speaker.


Common terms differ most from one language to another.  The word here that would change the most from one language to another is ‘leg.’


You can probably figure out what estómago means without even looking it up because it is close in form to stomach, but how about barriga or panza?  Barriga o panza mean belly or paunch, as in Sancho Panza. The learned words don’t change much from language to language, but the words that the braceros used when I was interpreting for them to doctors were sometimes not even in the dictionary.



I like how Hispanic speakers say ‘toes.’   Fingers of the feet, dedos de pies.  By the way, I think there’s a spelling mistake up there. ‘Left’ in Spanish is izquierdo.


Learning the common parts of the anatomy in Spanish can be a labor of love, since the street words for the anatomy of a human being are often more vivid and descriptive than the Latin/Greek terms.


la cara

‘Face’ in Spanish is la cara, but el rostro is also used. Rostro comes from Latin rostrum, which means ‘beak,’ so this word was originally street slang in Latin. Someone speaks publicly from a rostrum, which often looks like the beak of a bird.


El brazo is the arm. Un bracero, then, is someone who uses his arms for working. The word comes from brachium in Latin. When you embrace someone you are enfolding her in your arms.


La muñeca is the wrist, but it is also a doll.  It is so important for the hand to be completely flexible that there are many bones in the wrist.


I fell off of a motorcycle once and broke my arm. The doctor said I broke a navicular (ship shaped) bone, but there is no navicular in the wrist. There is a navicular in el pie, the foot. Sometimes I wonder about doctors. He meant one of the small bones in the wrist, but he couldn’t be bothered to use (learn?) the correct term.


Muñeca is from a pre-Roman language, possibly pre-Indo-European. Compare Basque muno (“colina”). The original meaning was ‘protuberance’, from which both senses of ‘wrist’ and ‘doll’ come. Compare Spanish moño (“a bow, ribbon”) and muñón (“stump”).


Everything you are rests on the astrágalo.  All of your life. From Greek ἀστράγαλος.


In some animals the astragalus are so nearly cube shaped that these cuboids were the very first dice, so when a gambler says, “Roll them bones,” he once was speaking quite literally.


El tobillo is the word for ‘ankle.’   From Latin tūbellum, a diminutive of tūber (hump, bump, swelling, protuberance).

libros usados

Words to live by, for anyone:   No deje que nadie le diga que hay cosas que no debe aprender o saber.   Don’t let anyone tell you that there are things that you don’t need to learn or to know.


Venga acá.     Come here.


The calf, or gastrocnemius, is called la pantorrilla in Spanish.


Probably neither one of them got much sleep.


¿Está mejor?   Is it better?    ¿Está peor?   Is it worse?


Trabaje primero por la gente, no por el dinero.   Work first for people, not money.


La rodilla is the ‘knee.’


In Spanish, the knee, la rodilla, is seen as a wheeled, rolling thing. El rodillo is a platen. Remember the platen?  It was that thing you rolled a piece of paper onto when you used a typewriter, or maybe you never did?  The word rodillo can also mean a rolling pin.  There is a notion of rounding, rolling here. La rodilla.

Cowboy rounding up cattle herd. Maui, Hawaii, USA

Un rodeo was once the time when the cattle were rounded up for the winter and put into the barn. Riding horses and roping calves can be hard on las rodillas, the knees, both las rodillas of the cattle and las rodillas of the herders.



La vejiga  (órgano que recibe la orina de los riñones)     bladder  (organ that receives urine from the kidneys)


Piense bien antes de beber. Es más  difícil después.  Think hard before you drink.  It’s more difficult afterwards.


El muslo is the thigh.  This looks like a descendant of the Latin musculum. Did you know that musculum (muscle) means ‘little mouse?’  The Romans thought that the muscles looked like mice jumping under the skin.


El hígado        the liver         hígados is colloquial for ‘guts, courage.’


Notice how large the liver is, and that it has a right and left lobe.

The liver is larger than the stomach.



Some good foods for a fat liver: artichokes, garlic, papayas, beets, limes, cucumbers, celery, carrots, ginger.


Love this kind of liver logic:   My liver is sick and I’m going to punish it.


El corazón…………………………..the heart


Your heart beats seventy times a minute, day and night all your life. That’s some kind of miracle, isn’t it?


Don’t smoke. Keep away from obesity. Exercise. No to stress. Look at life optimistically. Alcohol in moderation. Laugh a lot. A healthy, balanced diet. Watch your diabetes. Control hypertension and cholesterol. Breathe deeply. Enjoy the little things in life.


¿Cuales son las cosas más importantes que afectan la salud y el bienestar de su gente hoy en día y en el futuro?  What are the most important things that affect the health and well being of your people, both today and in the future?


The Greeks thought that the navel of the world was at Delphi.  They made a stone to cover the navel which they called omphalos. I think maybe the Spanish word for navel, el ombligo, is related to this Greek word.


For the Romans, a boss in the center of a shield was called an umbo, and a little umbo was an umbilicus, the direct ancestor of el ombligo.


The Spanish version of ‘staring at your navel’ is rascarse el ombligo, scracthing your navel.

El pene    el miembro     penis   member     Happiness is a voluntary muscle.


¿Qué papel tienen los curanderos y parteras?  What rôle do healers and midwives have?


El útero    the uterus, womb    A more interesting word for ‘womb’ is la matriz, the matrix.


A ‘rib’ is called la costilla in Spanish. When you accost someone, you are literally coming up close to their ribs.


In Latin the word for rib is costa, side.


El pezón is the nipple.  Self examination of the breast. Visual inspection.  Look for changes in skin texture. Nipple secretion. Atypical fullness and/or wrinkling. Retraction or cracking in the nipple.


El pezón is derived from a Latin root *pecione, a derivative of peciolus, petiolus from *pediciolus, diminutive of pediculus, dimunitive form of pes (“foot”).

Senos indicando sus partes

El seno o el pecho. Both of these words mean ‘breast,’ but I have the impression that el seno refers directly to the breast itself, where el pecho can also mean the chest generally. Seno is derived from sinus (curve, cavity, bosom; curve, bowl for serving wine, curved or bent surface, bending).  Pecho is from Latin pectus.


¿Cuántas madres amamantan a sus hijos?  ¿Son estos niños más sanos que los que no reciben leche de pecho?  ¿Porqué?  How many mothers breastfeed their babies? Are these children more healthy than those who are not breastfed? Why?


In pectore (Latin for “in the breast/heart”) is a term used in Catholicism to refer to appointments to the College of Cardinals by the Pope without revealing the names of the appointees (reserved by the Pope in his bosom, in pectore).


Other than its religious meaning and origin, nowadays in pectore is basically used to refer to either something kept hidden or unrevealed or an expected, but still not official, appointment to an office (especially in politics).  The Italian version of the phrase – in petto – is also commonly used.


El moretón    bruise, black and blue mark

el cuello

El cuello is ‘the neck.’ You can see the relationship of the word to collar.


La nuca, the nape of the neck


Cuando usted prueba una nueva idea, siempre empiece con poco.  When you try a new idea, always begin with a little bit. Go slowly.


El hombro is ‘the shoulder.’  Hombro is probably derived from humerus.


El mareo   dizziness, nausea, seasickness  El mareo can mean ‘annoyance’ when used colloquially.

dolores de espalda

‘The back’ is la espalda.     From Latin spatula (“broad, flat piece”)


There is an idiom tener buenas espaldas which means ‘to have broad shoulders,’ so I’m thinking that espalda originally meant shoulder, especially since the French for ‘shoulder’ is épaule.


Dar la espalda means ‘to turn your back on,’  so the title of this pamphlet means Don’t turn your back on your back.


Embarazada     pregnant     El embarazo can mean embarrassment, obstruction, awkwardness as well as pregnancy, so not such a good concatenation of ideas there.


La cintura is ‘the waist,’ and el cinturón is ‘the belt,’ but the title of the film above means ‘chastity belt.’  The language is Italian, though, so ‘chastity belt’ in Spanish would probably be el cinturón de castidad.   From Latin cinctūra.


A related idiom is meter en cintura, which means ‘to bring someone to reason.’



La cadera is ‘the hip,’ from Latin cathedra, from Ancient Greek καθέδρα, from κατά (katá, “above”) + ἕδρα (hédra, “chair”).


La rabadilla is the base of the spine, the coccyx.  Rabo means ‘tail,’ and rabada means ‘hindquarters, rump.’


¿Qué ocurrió?        What happened?


‘Elbow’ in Spanish is el codo, which is derived from Latin cubitus  (elbow; elbow; forearm; ulna; state, action of reclining, lying down).


A biblical measure was the cubit, which was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.  From Latin cubo, cubare, cubui, cubitum ”to lie down.”


Las nalgas is one way of saying ‘buttocks.’    If life turns its back on you, grab it by the ass.


Por favor quítase la ropa.     Please take off your clothes.  Please undress.

St. Vagina

med span vaginas

Sam’s Vagina Monologue      Las vaginas: The word vagina began to be used in the late 17th century.


Vagina is derived from Latin where it means literally a sheath, scabbard.


I see the word vagina used literally this way when I read Caesar who of course talks about the weapons his soldiers use.


Vagina is also the source of the word vanilla. Think of the shape of a vanilla pod.

walk right in

In all countries there are many slang words for vagina.  In Spain people often say coño (cunt).

mary vagina

Of course there are many other words:  toto, chocho, chichi, chumino, conejo, higo, chiral, papo.


The Spanish also use the word almeja (clam) for vagina.


In Cuba the main street word for vagina is papaya.


Governor Mitt Romney visited Miami as a quick stop on his presidential campaign. Part of the media tour included an interview for Radio Mabí with Carlos Santana. The nine-minute phone interview ended with giggles from Santana and the translator. Why? Romney used the word papaya which is Cuban slang for vagina.


In México some street words for vagina are concha, panocha, pucha, papaya, pepa, verija, cachucha, guayabo, chocho, la pepita, chango.


Guatemala: cuchara, cutusa or cotusa, pupusa.  Honduras: verga, pupusa, cuchara, cuca, pepa.  Nicaragua: bicho, mico.  Costa Rica: mico, panocha.   Panamá: micha, cuca, araña, tontón, chucha.



El Salvador: pupusa, cuca, mico, torta.


By the way, I always thought that the word tortilla (a little torta) was Mayan or Aztec as the thing itself is.


But the other day I was reading Ovid’s story of the flood, and I found this sentence:  Cava tortilis buccina sumitur illi, quae crescit in latum ab imo turbine: Buccina, quae, ut concepit aëra medio ponte, replet voce littora jacentia sub utroque Phoebo.


(The hollow spiral trumpet is taken by him, which increases in breadth from the lowest twist: Trumpet which when it was conceived in the middle of the sea filled with its sound all the shores lying under the Sun.)


So, tortilis was the Latin word for spiral and the Mexican word for the spiral corn tortilla.


No se preocupe.       Don’t worry.  You don’t have to worry.

med span bricia

Es imposible hechizar a una persona que no cree en la hechicería.

med span singer

It is impossible to bewitch a person who doesn’t believe in sorcery.


Haga todo lo que no le produce el dolor.      You can do anything that does not cause pain.

med span gabriela

Si tiene una enfermedad muy extraña, no le eche la culpa a una bruja, no vaya a un centro mágico, sino busque ayuda médica.

med span matilda

If you have a very strange affliction, don’t blame a ‘witch,’ and don’t go to a ‘magic’ center. Seek medical help.

la muerte

Cuando una persona está ‘hechizada,’  ¿es cierto que se alivia si los familiares lastiman o matan a la bruja?

med span libros

When someone is ‘bewitched,’ is it certain that this spell which has been cast will be alleviated if her family injures or kills the witch who did it?


¡MENTIRA!   Nunca hace provecho perjudicar a otra persona.

med span morra

LIE!  Never take advantage of a situation to hurt another person.

Festive Fitzgeralds

¿Entiende las instrucciones?      Do you understand the instructions?


¿No cree que necesita una inyección?

med span I don't need life

You don’t believe that he needs an injection?

med span billie

No, solamente tiene un resfriado. El solo va a sanar. Debe descansar, comer bien y tomar muchos líquidos. La medecina fuerte no le hará provecho pero sí le puede hacer daño.

med span switch

No, he just has a cold. It’ll get better by itself. He should rest, eat well and take a lot of liquids. Any stronger medicine will not be an advantage for him and may harm him.


No debe quitarse el vendaje.     Don’t take off the bandage.  Don’t remove the bandage.


Sólo cuando la gente se hace responsable de su propria salud y la de su comunidad, se pueden realizar cambios importantes.

med span tig

Only when people become responsible for their own health and for that of their community can important changes be made.



El bazo      spleen   Bazo can also mean yellowish brown.


Un dibujo vale más que mil palabras.

Elise Piliwale 11 Aug 2014

A drawing is worth more than a thousand words.

circassian portrait

¿Tiene Usted (Ud.) o ha tenido Ud. alguna vez destellos de luz?  Do you have or have you ever had light flashes?

med span auellen

Las personas pueden captar aún mejor las historias que tienen mensajes importantes, si ellas mismas las representan en vivo, en forma de teatro.

med span levee

People can better understand stories with important messages if they themselves act out the drama of these messages in a play.


El tórax se refiere al pecho y los órganos que se encuentran ahí.  The thorax refers to the chest and the organs found there.

med span aud

Haga visitas cordiales a los hogares, sobre todo a los de las personas que tienen problemas que no les permiten visitar al puesto de salud o que no participan en las actividades de grupo.

Elise 11 Aug 2014

Make cordial visits to homes, especially to those where people have problems that won’t allow them to visit the health center or to those who don’t participate in group activities.


En una escala de 0 a 10 donde 0 no indica dolor y 10 indica un dolor intenso, ¿ cómo diría Ud. que es el dolor?  On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain you have ever felt, how would you rate the pain?

med span ana

La convivencia, la cooperación y el cariño son las claves de la salud.

med span swingers

Living in harmony, cooperation and affection are the keys to health.


Inclínese Ud. hacía adelante.    Bend over forward.


Para muchas enfermedades los remedios tradicionales son tan buenos como las medicinas modernas – o hasta mejores. A menudo son más baratos. Y a veces son menos peligrosos.

med span jen

For many infirmities home remedies are as good as modern medicines – or even better.  At least they are cheap and at times are less dangerous.


Recuéstese Ud.         Lean backward.


Ningún contraveneno casero (sea contra víbora, alacrán, ubar, araña u otro animal venenoso) tiene fuerza curativa más que la pura sugestion.

med span janice

No home anti poison (whether it be against snake bite, scorpion bite, spider or any other poisonous animal bite) has any curative power other than pure suggestion.


Dé Ud. una vuelta.       Roll over.  (Give yourself a turn.)


Los remedios caseros ayudan a aliviar algunas enfermedades, pero otras deben curarse con la medicina moderna, como por ejemplo, todas las infecciones graves.

elise sam 11 Aug 2014

Home remedies help to alleviate some diseases, but other illnesses should be treated with modern medicine, such as, for example, all serious infections.


Enderécese Ud.      Sit up.


Do you remember that Ud. stands for UstedUsted is the formal ‘you’ in Spanish. Once upon a time Usted was a shortened form of Vuestra Merced, Your Mercy. Does Your Mercy wish for your crossbow now?  This is why Usted is in the third person.  This is similar to Does Your Majesty wish her soup tureen now? which is also a third person usage, although it is more difficult to see that in English, where verb conjugations have almost disappeared.


We address a duke as Your Grace. Same idea, and the verb is also in the third person. Has Your Grace been here before now?


Las enfermedades como pulmonía, tétano, fiebre, tifoidea, tuberculosis, apendicitis, enfermedades causadas por el contacto sexual y fiebre del parto deben tratarse con medicinas modernas lo más pronto posible.

jen baby

Diseases like lung disease, tetanus, fever, typhoid, tuberculosis, apendicitis, fevers in childbirth and diseases caused by sexual contact should be treated with modern medicines as soon as possible.


Acuéstese Ud. boca abajo.   Lie on your stomach.  (That is, prone.) Notice a cultural difference here. Lie prone is lie with your mouth below.

audience 4 oct 2014

Lie supine is lie with your mouth above.  That is, on your back.


No pierda tempo intendando curar estas enfermedades, pulmonía, tétano, fiebre, tifoidea, tuberculosis, apendicitis, enfermedades causadas por el contacto sexual y fiebre del parto, con remedios caseros.

med span hula

Don’t waste time trying to cure these diseases with home remedies.


Siéntese Ud.       Sit down.


En caso de una enfermedad grave, generalmente es mejor usar la medicina moderna – con la ayuda de un trabajador de la salud, cuando sea posible.

med span cibeli

In case of a serious illness, it is better generally to use modern medicine – with the help of a health care professional whenever possible.


El médico ha pedido que se le haga un examen de los senos.   Your doctor has ordered a breast examination.


Respete las tradiciones de su pueblo y desarrolle su labor en base a ellas.


Respect the traditions of your people, and develop your work on their behalf.

circassian black

La apoplejía es el deterioro repentino de la circulación en uno o más vasos sanguíneos que suministran sangre al cerebro.


A stroke (they called it ‘apoplexy’ in the 18th century) is a sudden impairment of circulation in one or more of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain.


Sobre todo, procure no hacer daño. Use un remedio casero sólo cuando sepa que no es peligroso y si conoce bien su uso correcto.

dan jaq

Above all, do no harm.


Use a home remedy only when you know it is not dangerous and if you know its correct use.


Este web log intenta ayudar a la gente a atender sus problemas más frecuentes de salud.

med span carlos

This web log is intended to help people with their most frequent health problems.

coca cola footnote

tome conciencia




See you next week?

Sam Janis Roy

Sam Andrew                  Janis Joplin      Roy Markowitz