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Throughout human history the English language has spread across the world and branched into a number of regional varieties, some of which may prove challenging to non-native speakers. The two main varieties, British and American English, differ in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, and usage. In medical writing, the key differences lie in spelling and terminology.

This is the second of two articles on differentiating between British and American English. The first article tackled main spelling differences between the two varieties, focusing on common medical and pharmaceutical terms. The present article focuses on discrepancies in terminology. The series should be useful to anyone – regardless of their first language – who needs to compile documents in English for the life sciences industry.

Straightforward terminology differences

Do you remember the examples for differences between British and American English that you learned in school? Lorry/truck, lift/elevator, sidewalk/pavement, biscuit/cookie, car park/parking lot, chips/fries, trousers/pants, football/soccerThe list could go on and on.

Medical and pharmaceutical terminology follows the same principle: pairs of words describe the same concept, but one of them is used almost exclusively in the UK and the other in the US.

A non-exhaustive list of examples (British first, American second):

  • plaster/Band-Aid
  • fit/seizure
  • crash call/code
  • A&E/ER or ED
  • operating theatre/room
  • jab/shot (vaccination)
  • tablet/pill (the respective term is not used exclusively, but more frequently)
  • antenatal/prenatal
  • CTG/non-stress test
  • observations/vitals
  • the pill/birth control
  • FBC/CBC (full/complete blood count)

Interestingly, we can observe the same dichotomy in generic names of certain medicines. Such differences are a relic of the era from before the adoption of International Nonproprietary Names (INN) (for more on INN see next month’s blog post). It is especially important for researchers to be aware of these differences. This knowledge enables them to search relevant medical literature successfully and not miss any data on a particular medicine simply because they were published under a different generic name.

Examples of differing generic names (again, British first, American second):

  • Paracetamol/Acetaminophen
  • Aciclovir/Acyclovir
  • Amfetamine/Amphetamine
  • Ciclosporin/Cyclosporine
  • Glucose/Dextrose
  • Adrenaline/Epinephrine (both in use in the UK)/Epinephrine
  • Ergometrine/Ergonovine
  • Oestrogen/Estrogen
  • Folinic acid/calcium folinate
  • Leucovorin/leucovorin calcium (another name for folinic acid)
  • Liquid paraffin/Mineral oil
  • Nicotinic acid/Niacin
  • Glyceryl trinitrate/Nitroglycerin
  • Phenoxymethylpenicillin/Penicillin V
  • Benzylpeicillin/Penicillin G
  • Hyoscine/Scopolamine

A more detailed (but not comprehensive) list, compiled by the UK Medicines Information pharmacists for NHS healthcare professionals, is available to the general public.

Systemic difference influences terminology

A similar terminology dilemma, which may seem straightforward at first, relates to the specialist field of anaesthesiology (or anesthesiology, in the US). As a 2000 article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed, there are noticeable and significant differences between anaesthesiology specialists in the UK and US that transcend simple spelling.

The British and the American health systems are quite different, which is the main cause for country-specific definitions of the profession. As the BMJ article explains, all anaesthetics in the UK “are given by medically qualified anaesthetists who are the single largest medical specialty”. These specialists work in operating theatres (which is their traditional and primary role), as well as anywhere else they are needed, for instance in obstetrics, imaging, trauma, and intensive care units. In the US, both nurse anesthetists and medically qualified anesthesiologists administer anaesthetics, but their involvement in intensive care medicine is limited. However, a search through the European Medicines Agency (EMA) website reveals that while the UK prefers the term anaesthetists, the EU largely refers to these specialists as anaesthesiologists. Keep in mind that these differences between UK and EU English will likely increase now the UK is no longer in the EU.

To sum up:

  • If your target audience is in the US or if you are discussing the US medical system, the most likely terms to use are anesthetists (nurses) or anesthesiologists (qualified medical doctors).
  • If your target audience is in the UK or if you are referring to the UK medical system, say anaesthetist.
  • If your document is intended for use within the EU or for submission to EU institutions, your best bet would be to use anaesthesiologist.

Since Alamma is a Slovenia-based translation agency, we were curious to see what terminology Slovene medical professionals prefer when referring to anaesthesiology (in Slovene: anesteziologija). It seems that the two possible terms for a professional in this field, anestezist and anesteziolog, are synonymous; this is confirmed by both the Dictionary of the Slovenian Standard Language (SSKJ) and Slovenian medical dictionary. A Google search, limited to domain, finds approximately 5,900 results for anesteziolog and 1,500 results for anestezist, which points towards a clear preference for the former term, though the latter seems to be used quite commonly.

Finding and implementing the correct medical and pharmaceutical terminology is a challenging task. Adding to that regional differences, British and American English being the most common variants, makes it even more complicated to opt for the right term. The best advice we can give is that choose your variant of English based on your target reader, publisher, and/or the institution to which you are submitting your documentation. Make sure to check which variant they prefer.

At Alamma, we are always here to help! If you would like an expert proofreader or editor (native in either British or American English) to read through your text and adapt it as necessary, do not hesitate to contact us on