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Trisha Torrey

The Irony of the Word: Diagnosis

By February 9, 2013

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My patient advocate friend Lynn, who is also a doctor (and has shifted her practice to advocacy...) asked me, "Do you know how funny the word "diagnosis" is?"

When we break it down to its Greek roots:

"DI" means two. (as in "disect" or "dioxide")

"A" means without. (as in "amoral" or "atypical")

"GNOSIS" means knowledge.

Therefore DIAGNOSIS = two without knowledge.

Even though that's NOT how it is used today. Today "diagnosis" is used as a label for what IS wrong with someone - as if it is shared knowledge.

Beyond the irony, why might it be important that we clarify a word and its use? Because getting the right care means we must all understand each other - providers and patients - and use words the same way, agreeing on the same meanings. Obviously the word "diagnosis" has evolved from its roots to mean something else entirely.

As have its derivations. So for the sake of being sure we are communicating correctly -- MISDIAGNOSIS means we don't have the right answer, even if it turns out it's practically a double negative. For those of us who have been misdiagnosed - well - it makes me shudder. Talk about irony.

Learn about your medical care and clear communication.

Learn about the process of getting a diagnosis

Learn about how doctors use the process of differential diagnosis

Learn what to do when you can't get a diagnosis

Learn more about mis- or missed diagnosis

Learn how common misdiagnosis is

(Thanks for sharing, Lynn!)

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Agree? Disagree?
Share your experience or join the conversation!


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February 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm
(1) Christoph says:

Just an fyi to the premise of this post: The word “diagnosis” is comprised of two, not three Greek words. Those words are “dia” and “gnosis.” “Gnosis has been translated correctly but “dia” means “with,” or “on account of,” because of,” through” etc. There is no irony to the word. Perhaps this was a Greek joke and the punch line eluded me? Cheers.

February 11, 2013 at 8:46 am
(2) Trisha Torrey says:


I don’t know nearly enough Greek to make jokes…. So….

I thank you for your translation (which, I agree, makes much more sense) – although I’m not sure why your translation would be any more accurate than Lynn’s. None of us were there when the word was developed, so…? We can only guess that yours is correct because it does make more sense for today’s usage.

But let’s agree that the real point to the post was not about translating Greek. It was about the need for making sure we all understand the same thing. Patients and their doctors must agree on the meanings of the words being used.

And you have illustrated the point perfectly. The same word, two different translations – opposing each other. Clarification is obviously needed to be sure both parties are on the same plate.

Thanks for adding your thoughts.


February 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm
(3) gemdiamondintherough says:

Although usually I agree with you Trish, I think it makes more sense as to how Christoph has described the word!
“Through knowledge” would make the most sense to me!
You need to “gather” knowledge and that includes listening to the patient along with what other means you may have available!!!!!!!!

May 8, 2013 at 11:11 pm
(4) Daniel says:

I agree with you Trisha. Patients should also understand the meaning of the terms their doctors were using to avoid confusion. By the way, thanks Christoph for the translation!

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