The bias in the dictionary

Given my new tack, I thought it would be handy to understand the terms “geriatrics” and “gerontology” clearly. I knew that geriatricians were medical doctors, and Wikipedia puts the distinction clearly: “Geriatrics is a subspecialty of medicine that focuses on health care of the elderly. … The term geriatrics differs from gerontology, which is the study of the aging process itself.”   But check out the how Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 11th Ed., defines “geriatrics” [emphasis added]:  “a branch of medicine that deals with the problems and diseases of old age and aging people.”  Compare its definition of gerontology — “the comprehensive study of aging and the problems of the aged” ― to Wikipedia’s: “the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging.”

Moving back to “geriatrics” and on to the Encarta® World English Dictionary, we get a neutral first definition: “1. relating to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illness in senior citizens” and a humdinger of a second one: “2. an offensive term meaning showing the effects of age.”  The excellent New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with my Mac elucidates under USAGE: “Geriatric is the normal, semiofficial term used in the U.S. and Britain when referring to the health care of old people (: a geriatric ward; : geriatric patients). When used outside such contexts, however, it typically carries overtones of being worn out and decrepit and can therefore be offensive.” That kind of says it all.  

Here’s a kicker from my friend Hilary Siebens, herself a geriatrician. “Geriatricians do as a group have a commitment to take care of the whole patient and have chosen an unglamorous field, so they are different as a group from other doctors,” she notes.  “And a study of satisfaction with practice recently showed geriatricians [rating] one of the highest among all the medical specialties.” It’ll be interesting to find out why.

One thought on “The bias in the dictionary

  1. i realize this is a bit off-topic, but i think its very very interesting that the most even-handed definition is in the crowd-sourced wikipedia rather than the “expert-edited” Merriam Webster and other dictionaries.  perhaps you might want to try your hand at adding something to the Wikipedia article about the implications of the varying definitions.

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