Radiology Grammar Police: Centimeter or Sontimeter?

October 28, 2011

Way back when, during my first year of radiology residency, I noticed a peculiar trend in the department.Well-educated folks, born and raised in the USA with English as their primary language and no trace of a foreign accent, were speaking oddly - but only in the context of metric measurements. Very specifically, the unit which referred to a hundredth of a meter: They called it a “son-timeter.”

Way back when, during my first year of radiology residency, I noticed a peculiar trend in the department.

Well-educated folks, born and raised in the USA with English as their primary language and no trace of a foreign accent, were speaking oddly - but only in the context of metric measurements. Very specifically, the unit which referred to a hundredth of a meter: They called it a “son-timeter.”

I’m generally not a member of the Grammar Police, and I tend not to offer correction when I hear folks misusing words or saying things the wrong way - it leads to defensiveness, hurt feelings, and the risk of coming off as a nerd or know-it-all. Certainly, when the erroneous party is my senior (in age and/or rank), I err on the side of caution.

I felt motivated to action, however, as I saw that, one by one, other residents in the program, and even medical students on radiology rotations, were falling prey to linguistic peer-pressure. Before my dismayed eyes (or, more accurately, ears), they switched from speaking of centimeters to sontimeters. As a member of a teaching facility, I determined that I should not stand idly by, even if I did risk some backlash.

So it was that I finally administered a pop-quiz to one such student (or junior resident; I cannot recall which):

What do you call the insect that has a hundred legs? (I got a momentary look of confusion, then the answer.) “Centipede.”

What’s the word for a period of a hundred years? (Less hesitation this time.) “Century.”

How much is a penny worth? “One cent.”

So, what’s a hundredth of a meter? (A rewarding look of comprehension and relief.) “A centimeter.”

I never saw a single disciple of mine revert to sontimeters. More, I noticed some of them passing on their experience, newly confident that their original patterns of speech were at least acceptable, if not more linguistically correct. Hurrah! I thought; even if I contribute nothing else to the field of medicine, at least this small thing can be my legacy.

And yet, earlier this month, I noticed a discussion-thread on another medical forum I frequent. This time, it was a rheumatologist inquiring as to why on Earth all of these American physicians were going out of their way to speak of sontimeters.

Some of the respondents were unwilling to cede the point, maintaining that this would be an acceptable European pronunciation. Most frequently, they’d cite French. Disregarding, for the moment, that vanishingly few American physicians speaking of sontimeters have any European accents at all. How many people do you know who use a foreign accent for a single word of their native language?

Besides, if you’re going to maintain that you’re saying it the French way, you should at least go whole-hog: Sohn-tee-may-tre.