Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Out of Hours

Fighting a lost cause?

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 21 April 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1621
  1. Christopher Martyn, associate editor, BMJ
  1. cmartyn{at}

    Shifts in meaning may be common enough in everyday language, but there is a case for resisting such change with respect to technical terms and concepts. The Bradford Hill “criteria” are one example

    Words can change their meaning by 180 degrees in a remarkably short space of time. Not long ago “prestigious” meant tricky or deceitful; “sophisticated” meant adulterated or falsified; and “peruse” meant to read carefully. The same is true of technical terms. Quintile and quartile, once labels for the cut points that divided a frequency distribution, are now used, even in the BMJ, to mean portions of the data. Which is odd, really, as perfectly clear and unambiguous words, “fifth” and “quarter,” already exist for that purpose. I suppose that “quintile” and “quartile” must seem cleverer or more scientific, rather as some writers use “epicentre” when they mean centre, a pointless hyperbole implying that there’s something even closer to the centre than the centre itself. But there’s no point in objecting, however much you regret the change. A word’s current meaning resides in the way it’s …

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