‘EKG’ May Sound Right, But It’s Not

A cranky curmudgeon

A cranky curmudgeon

I underwent laparoscopic repair of an umbilical hernia two weeks ago (my 10 incisions are healing nicely, thank you, although the itching is nearly unbearable). In preparation for the operation, I was asked to have blood work done and to undergo an electrocardiogram.

When I arrived at the office where the electrocardiogram would be performed, the woman at the desk asked me what I was there for. I said, “An ECG.”

And then she “corrected” me: “You mean EKG.”

She also told me that the person who was to perform the procedure wasn’t in that day and that I’d have to come back and. . . . I needed her information—and I couldn’t afford to tick her off—so I didn’t respond.

But I wanted to.

Not that she was to blame. Use of the phrase EKG is nearly ubiquitous in the medical patois editors sometimes refer to as “stupid jargon.” If you look at it logically, EKG is an inappropriate initialism—at least in the United States.

Here is how I wanted my conversation with the woman behind the desk to continue:

“Oh. EKG. All right. Say, can you tell me what EKG stands for?”

In my perfect world, she would say, “Electrocardiogram.”

“Oh. Okay. And how do you spell that?”

In my perfect world, she would say, “Um, let’s see . . . “E. L. E. C.—“

“Ah HAAAAAAAH!!!!!” I would exclaim. “You fell right into my trap! There’s absolutely no reason to carry on this absurd tradition of saying ‘EKG,’ unless you spell “electrocardiogram” the way the Germans do: E. L. E. K. T. R. O. K. A. R. D. I. O. G. R. A. M. M. It has been abbreviated ECG in medical journals for decades—since we English speakers appropriated the word for our own use and respelled it. Come on, people! Get with the program! Calling it an EKG is as silly as making sure patients don’t eat anything after midnight before surgery despite the evidence showing that it’s not necessary!”

And everyone in the room would burst into applause.

A copy editor can dream, right?

(And about that “nothing to eat or drink after midnight”? I’m not bitter. Really.)

-The Word Curmudgeon (Doug Brandt, AJN associate editor) provides occasional and crusty contemplations for the writing nurse, from a copyeditor’s perspective.

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2016-11-21T13:23:46+00:00 August 13th, 2009|Nursing|7 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Chris March 8, 2013 at 7:42 am

    Funny post. I feel compelled to add that EKG is the accepted international term, used throughout medical literature. In other words, when someone from a non-English speaking country publishes something in English, they use EKG. Also, “Kardio” is Greek.. (like.. let’s see… 99% of medical language =). If you add the EEG confusion avoidance, then EKG is perfectly fine.

    ps: it’s eleCtrokardiogram in German.


  2. jm August 15, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    I’d add (sorry Curmudgeon) that EKG’s a whole lot easier to say. Which doesn’t make it “right,” but still…usage is a big part of rightness if it does no harm. I’m not yet convinced using EKG instead of ECG does harm, though it may offend many an excellent copyeditor! Maybe we should just start spelling the word electrocardiogram with a “k”! Or maybe we’ll go on muddling through, since this habit isn’t likely to change soon!

  3. jparadisirn August 15, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Of course, you are right. However, EKG is used instead of ECG, to prevent confusion with EEG (electroencephalagram), both in handwritten orders and in conversation. The intent is to prevent a patient from getting the wrong test.

  4. Trish Weisman August 13, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Wonderful piece! I’m proud to be a copyeditor who will go down fighting for the English language.

  5. Jo Ann LeQuang August 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I always heard that EKG was adopted to avoid potential confusion with EEG.

  6. Doug Brandt August 13, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Bless you. That cracked me up.

  7. notratched August 13, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    As a former medical editor gone nurse, I can tell you I gave up fighting this stuff a long time ago. I have given up on “previous history” and “past history” as well. I still haven’t gotten over “undo distress,” but “EKG” is just entrenched—like split infinitives.

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