Last month I participated in the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) conference in Miami Beach. This was the first time in the organization’s 26-year existence that its conference was held outside of New England. The weather (50’s Infographic-Ten-idioms-about-the-human-body1and 60’s with lots of rain and little sunshine) was far from what I expected. However, the conference turned out to be a resounding success. Approximately 450 persons attended the three-day event.

Saturday, the 19th of January was taken up by a variety of Panels and Plenary Sessions. One of the day’s highlights took place when Cristina Frasier, Certified Medical Interpreter –Spanish and Supervisor of Interpreter Services at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, read her first place winning essay on Making a Difference through National Certification.

There were also many venders and exhibitors at the conference. One of the booths that really caught my attention was the one from ESL RULES  ( ).  The booth was staffed by two Speech-Language Pathologists, Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker. ESL RULES offers an entire line of products focused on enhancing the proficiency of non-native English professionals in the medical field. In the course of Lynda’s and Marjorie’s work and research they realized the importance of idioms, slang, figurative language, and humor in the healthcare environment.

I was especially impressed with one of their publications: Medically Speaking Idioms. This 164-page manual contains over 100 idioms with definitions and sentence examples, as well as some 200 additional expressions likely to be encountered in a medical setting. There are numerous written and audio dialogues demonstrating how the idioms may be used in context. Clear definitions and alternate expressions are also provided.

The authors have graciously given me permission to use 10 items selected from their 25 Medical Idioms Pre-Test*. Why don’t you have a try at them? Mark the letter that you feel best defines the underlined portion of the sentence.

1. It’s your turn to present the case. Just bite the bullet.

a. grind your teeth while sleeping
b. prepare for an unpleasant experience; brace yourself for something painful
c. bite down on a tongue depressor
d. advocate for gun control legislation

2. Dr. Fu will call the shots.

a. make the decisions; give orders
b. report the immunizations
c. give a verbal order
d. check with the doctor in charge

3. Mrs. White made the decision to go under the knife.

a. have therapy before surgery
b. undergo surgery
c. deal with her anorexia
d. have a non-surgical face-lift

4. The attending physician jumped down the medical student’s throat.

a. checked him for strep throat
b. spoke at exactly the same time
c. complimented someone on their articulate argument
d. talked to someone in an angry fashion

5. The angry patient wanted to get something off his chest.

a. have a chest x-ray
b. take the EKG leads off his chest
c. expose his feelings to someone
d. have an easier time breathing

6. He won’t be out of the woods for 24 hours.

a. confused
b. alert and oriented
c. a vegetarian
d. safe from trouble or danger

7. The patient in the NICU kicked the bucket last evening.

a. was ignored
b. expired, died
c. danced with excitement
d. was transferred to another floor

8. It was touch and go for the first few hours after surgery.

a. necessary to improvise the medical plan
b. necessary to massage sore muscles
c. necessary to receive physical therapy
d. very risky, critical

9. Let’s just play it by ear.

a. follow the rules
b. compensate for a hearing loss
c. figure it out as we go along; improvise
d. insert myringotomy tubes

10. The volunteer gave the patient a shot in the arm.

a. a painful procedure
b. something that gave him energy, lifted his spirits
c. donated blood
d. a B-12 shot

Now, check your answers. How well did you do?  _________________out of 10

Answers: 1. b, 2. a, 3. b, 4. d, 5. c, 6. d, 7. b, 8. d, 9. c, 10. b.

Dennis F. Caffrey
Certified Medical Interpreter – Spanish

* With permission of the authors of Medically Speaking Idioms, per email exchange between Lynda Katz Wilner and Dennis Caffrey, 30 January 2013.

This entry was posted in Dennis Caffrey, Idioms, Interpreters. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Susan Patton says:

    Talk about an eye opener! We evidently use many more medically- related idioms than first “meets the eye”! Susan Patton

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