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Pneumonology or Pneumology? An Etymologic Approach
Reprinted with permission from CHEST , vol 121, No 5, May 2002

"Wise the accurate"

Ancient Greek motto

Not surprisingly, most medical terms are of ancient Greek origin. However, their etymology frequently is not widely known and neither is the first usage of the main words that are used in medical practice, which originated in ancient Greece. Consequently, these words are misused. The ancient Greek sophist Antisthenis1 claimed that "the examination of names is the beginning of science", emphasizing that words as names (onomata in Greek) of things were directly connected with the objects they indicated and that they can lead us to their real origin and, consequently, to the beginnings of science.

The variety of and confusion over the name of the specialty called pneumonology, names which range from pneumology, lungology, respirology, thoracic medicine, and pulmology to the correct term, pneumonology, prompted us to study the etymology of the words pneumonology and pneumology and to examine which term is more appropriate and etymologically correct in relation to other relevant terms.

Pneumon or Pleumon

The word pneumon or pleumon (lung) in Greek comes from the ancient Greek verb pneo, which means to blow or to breathe. This verb has its origin in the Indo-European2 root *pleumon- (*plumon-), which is also relevant to the Indo-European root *pleu-, which means to swim2. (The asterisk is placed in front of the Indo-European root to denote the form that once was in popular usage but then disappeared). Therefore, pleumon or pneumon is the word for something that floats on water, on liquid.

The term pleumon (lung) is seen in Homer3 and in later writers, and it also agrees with the Latin form pulmo. Liddell and Scott4 claimed that the original form was pleumon, originating from the root plef (ie, to sail or float), that it is used because of the light constitution of the lungs, and that later the term pneumon was introduced because of its hypothetical ety mology in the root pny (to blow). Aristotle5 presents it in his work Peri Anapnoe's ("About Breath"), giving yet another version of its etymological origin, by claiming that "it seems to have taken its name pneumon due to its shape as it plays the role of the reception (hypodohi in Greek) of pneumata (winds)", while Plato6 states that pneumon is the cashier of pneumata (winds) of the human body. In addition, Euripides7 emphasizes that pneuma or pnoe comes from pneumones (the lungs). Sophocles 8 estimates that pneumones (lungs) are the most vivid parts of the human body.

The word pneumonologia is not found anywhere in the ancient Greek literature as a composite form. In the ancient Greek texts4,9,10, we often find the words pneumon or pleumon (both meaning the lung) pneumonis, or pneumonitis,or pneumonia (all meaning inflammation of the lungs)4,11, and other words relevant to them, but not the word pneumonologia. Consequently, the last word is a modern Greek term. It is a composite word consisting of the ancient Greek words pneumon + logos, meaning speech or logic, and is derived from the ancient Greek verb lego, meaning to speak about.

Pneumonologia in Greek means the following: (1) the talk on pneumonology matters; (2) the scientific field of pneumonology or the occupation of the specialty of pneumonology; (3) the study of pneumonology as a specialty; and (4) the total of what the first component (pneumon-) of the word pneumonologia means12. This word of Greek origin, pneumonologia, must be translated into pneumonology in English.


However, many modern scientists simplify the word pneumonology as pneumology without understanding and knowing why this shortened version is not correct. In the case of the wrongly used term pneumology, one can emphasize that the first component, the word pneuma, comes from the Indo-European word *pnefo, which is the origin of the ancient Greek verb pneo2. Pneuma means pnoe` (blow), the blow of the wind, breath, and soul-heart in ancient Greek and, finally, the air. Consequently, from the word pneuma the term pneumothorax can be derived, but not the term pneumonology. What is more, in modern medical dictionaries13 we often find both the word pneuma (air, breathing) and its combined forms without any discrimination from the word pneumon and its derivatives. Thus, under the catchword pneuma, the following meanings can be listed: (1) air; (2) the lungs; (3) breathing and respiration; and (4) pneumonia. Some of these meanings are incorrect; the road to accuracy seems to be long. We finally find catchwords such as pneumatocele, pneumomediastinum, pneumatorrhachis, pneumatosis, or pneumaturia, all words deriving from pneuma that are connected with air.

In omitting the suffix -no, which ultimately is the difference between pneumonology and pneumology, as in pneumocentesis, pneumology,or pneumoconio-sis12, and instead using the words pneumonocentesis, pneumonology, or pneumonoconiosis, it is not clear that the first set of words is connected with the air, while the second, correct set, which is connected with the suffix -no, and is related to the lungs.

As a synonym for the term pneumology, one can use the term pneumatology, which derives from the genitive of the word pneuma-tos + logos, and also the term aerology, because aer means air in Greek and is a synonym for pneuma. However, pneumatology is the study of the mediator of ghosts in the communication between God and humans12, while aerology or aerologia is to speak about the air12, completely different meanings from the term lung (pneumon in Greek). Pneuma means mainly air in Greek and not the lung.

Related Terms of Various Origins

Instead of the term pneumonology, some users accept as official terms like pulmonology, and as being acceptable synonyms like the following13: pulmonary medicine and pulmonary specialist (eg, pediatrician); and thoracic surgeon. Some users characterize as borderline other hypothetical synonyms such as chest medicine, whereas at the same time they suggest that terms like pneumology, lung medicine, or thoracic medicine should be discouraged (emphasizing the phrase "for almost any application") and that terms such as bronchology, respirology, and lungology should be banned13-15. These terms are in use today but are not correct, and they could not play the role of synonym to the word pneumonology.

Lung medicine, for example, is a phrase that omits other relevant subjects that belong to the field of pneumonology, whereas the term thoracic medicine is not used in modern Greek since it is not correct for general use. It refers not only to the lungs but also to the heart and the other organs of the thorax.

In particular, the term pulmonology might be acceptable as a synonym if one did not have to combine a Latin word meaning lung (pulmo) and a Greek word meaning speech or talk (logos), neither of which have in them the Greek suffix -no (pulmonology), which might send us in another direction.

To the argument that "pneumonology, a good candidate, might be confused with pneumoniology, a study of pneumonias,"14 one can counter that when a user knew the origin of the terms, he could hardly make a mistake. To another argument that says that "pneumology is an acceptably shortened form of pneumonology, avoids the above confusion, is used on the European continent, and is listed in modern medical dictionaries,"14 one can claim that pneumology14 is not an acceptable shortened form of pneumonology, because the first term comes from pneuma, while the latter derives from pneumon. Furthermore, the term that is widely used today, otorhinolaryngology, is etymologically correct although it is long.

Thus, the confusion would not come from the similarity of the terms, but from the ignorance of the real meanings and origins of the terms, which modern medical dictionaries should provide. Some terms seem to depict the reality; others represent the simplification. But what about the accuracy?

As far as the use of other terms such as lung medicine, bronchology,or respirology, which are presented occasionally as synonyms to pneumonology, one can simply argue that they are not able to cover every facet of this specialty that only the term pneumonology can fully express. In the Spanish medical language, one can also find the term neumology or neumologia. However, the word composed of the Greek words neuma and logos leads us to another meaning that is completely different from the user's intention, because the word neuma actually means a kind of head movement that expresses agreement or emphasis of something. The ancient Greek word neuma comes from the verb neuo and has nothing to do with the lungs. Such usage in published articles has been responsible for the wrong use of the main term for the last 25 years.

In conclusion, the main medical term of Greek origin, pneumonologia, and its derivatives have to be translated into pneumonology and not pneumology in English, because we speak about the lungs and whatever belongs to this specialty that concerns the lungs, and we do not speak about the air, even though the lungs are filled with air. This example demonstrates the roots of pneumonology in the ancient Greek world and shows also the richness of the Greek language. The clarification of its meaning provides the opportunity to see not only the linguistic origin of such words, but also the chance to use them consciously and properly.


  1.  Antisthenis Fragmenta. In: Dumont DS, Smith RM, eds. Thesaurus linguae Graecae [book on CD-ROM, version 10d-32]. Los Angeles, CA: Musaios, 1992-1995.

  2.  Hoffman JB. Etymologisches worterbuch des Griechischen. M?nchen, Germany: Verlag Von R. Oldenbourg, 1950.

  3.  Homer. The iliad. Murray AT, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976- 1978; rhapsody D (verse 528), and rhapsody Y (verse 486).

  4.  Liddell HG, Scott RA. Greek-English lexicon. 9th ed. London, UK: Clarendon Press, 1996.

  5.  Aristotle. Peri anapnoe's (about breath). In: Dumont DS, Smith RM, eds. Thesaurus linguae Greacae [book on CD-ROM, version 10d-32]. Los Angeles, CA: Musaios, 1992-1995; chapter 10, section 6.

  6.  Plato. Timeos. In: Bury RG, trans. Plato's works (vol II). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975; 70c.

  7.  Euripides. Orestis (vol II). Way AS, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978; verse 277.

  8.  Sophocles. Trachiniae (vol II). Storr F, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978; verse 778.

  9.  Hippocrates. The sacred disease. In: Jones WHS, trans. Hippocrates works (vol II). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967; chapter 9, section 5.

10.  Hippocrates. Aphorisms. In: Jones WHS, trans. Hippocrates works (vol II). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967; Aphorism No. LXXXVII.

11.  Galen. Explanation of the Hippocratic terms. In: Dumont DS, Smith RM, eds. Thesaurus linguae Greacae [book on CD-ROM, version 10d-32]. Los Angeles, CA: Musaios, 1992- 1995; 546.           

12.  Babiniotis G. Lexicon of the new Greek language. Athens, Greece: Lexicology Center, 1998.

13.  McDonough JT Jr, ed. Stedman's medical dictionary. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1987.

14.  Waring W. A lung is a lung is a lung. Am Rev Respir Dis 1976; 113:1- 2.

15.  Gaensler AE, Goff MA. The passing of the phthisiologist. Am Rev Respir Dis 1977; 113:569-572.

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