Thorac cardiovasc Surg 2019; 67(01): 001
DOI: 10.1055/s-0038-1676848
Georg Thieme Verlag KG Stuttgart · New York

Vanishing Wor(l)ds

Markus K. Heinemann
1  The Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgeon, Universitätsmedizin Mainz, Mainz, Germany
› Author Affiliations
Further Information

Publication History

Publication Date:
11 January 2019 (online)

Should you ever come to visit the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital on the outskirts of Northwest London in Stanmore, take some time to enjoy the unusual wall decorations on several floors, including the children's ward, designed by artist Jackie Morris.[1] These, in turn, originate from the book illustrations of Robert Macfarlane's “Lost Words.”[2] The author's basic message is that words which used to be commonplace for a very long time get dropped from everyday language. He illustrates this mainly in connection with nature and landscape[3] and maintains a Twitter account on which he keeps featuring or, rather, “tweeting” fascinating examples called “word of the day.” For instance:

“‘sea stack’ - an islanded, isolated but still-standing tower of rock, shorn from its mainland by the power & persistence of the sea.” [4]

They can be witnessed on many rocky shores subject to constant erosion—think of “Long Anna” off Helgoland.

It is not without British irony that Macfarlane uses Twitter because he criticizes that the “lost words” from nature are often replaced by fashionable ones like “blog” and “celebrity.” Unfortunately, his followers are only in the 129,000 range, not in the millions like that of certain other fond users of this social medium.

You may have started to wonder by now how this relates to The Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgeon. Faithful readers of its Editorials will know that fondness of language and words is one of the traits of the Editor-in-Chief. It is a sad and parallel development that in scientific publishing this drain of words can be painfully observed by sensitive minds every day. Its language has been reduced to a minimalist vocabulary. Here is a typical, randomly chosen (abridged) example from one of the most cited trials in cardiovascular medicine in 2016:

“Between 2008 and 2015, 1201 patients WERE randomly assigned, 598 to asphalt treatment and 603 to cobalt treatment, and 592 in each group entered analysis by intention to treat. Kaplan-Meier 5-year estimates of disaster WERE 28% for asphalt (121 events) and 18% for cobalt (80 events), HR 1.51 (95% CI 1.13–2.00), exceeding the limit for non-inferiority, and cobalt WAS significantly better than asphalt (p = 0.0044). As-treated estimates WERE 28% versus 18% (1.48, 1.11–1.98, p = 0.0069). Comparing asphalt with cobalt, 5 year estimates WERE 11% versus 9% (1.08, 0.67–1.74, p = 0.84) for all-cause mortality, 6% versus 2% (2.87, 1.40–5.89, p = 0.0040) for non-procedural disaster, 15% versus 10% (1.50, 1.04–2.17, p = 0.0304) for any poisoning, and 5% versus 2% (2.20, 0.91–5.36, p = 0.08) for aglossia. The findings of this study SUGGEST that cobalt MIGHT BE BETTER than asphalt for treatment of this disease.”

Half of this “text” consists of numbers, the rest being composed of only a few words. Five asphalts and five cobalts. Four “weres” and one “was”—which at first sounds repetitive, but at least pretty distinct, only to be followed by a nadir of an interpretation molded from wax, suggesting that something might be—and that is The Lancet for you, after all.

It is only by reading that we can build an active vocabulary, both in our native and in foreign languages. Words we don't know we cannot use, and this, in turn, limits our ability to think. It is sad and worrisome that more and more people seem to be forced to look down a narrow tube rather than being able to gaze at a seemingly endless horizon. Characteristically, the German writer Judith Schalansky calls books the ideal depository of everything which has been lost.[5] So please keep reading not only specialized journals but also and especially classic novels and literature of the past.

Enough, for now, of this supercilious rambling! “Supercilious”—a lost word? “Haughty, contemptuous, disdainful, eyebrow-raising (from the Latin “supercilium,” eyebrow). In birds, the “supercilium” is an eyebrow-like stripe of feathers (cf The Supercilious Hummingbird).[4] Isn't this a wonderful image for your imagination, all in one word? Be sure not to lose it.