Mind your language

I’ve recently heard of a new history of gait analysis being written and been given a preview of the section on language development which I’ve been given permission to share.

The first task was obviously to understand how people walked. This proved more difficult than anyone imagined and at the end of the process everyone was considerably more confused than they were at the start. To cover this up they invented a new range of words and phrases.

Someone identified six determinants of gait which everyone agreed was a good thing despite very few of them really determining gait and the one that actually did being completely over-looked. The fourth and fifth were so vague as to be virtually useless but this was cunningly disguised by describing them both in the same paragraph which then looked nearly as long as the paragraphs describing the others.

The gait cycle was divided up in such a bizarre and counter-intuitive way that everyone thought it was a joke until they found it had been published in a text book and had to start using it. Mid-stance wasn’t in the middle of stance and terminal stance wasn’t at the end. There was a pre-swing but no pre-stance (which is actually more important). Single support was divided into two phases while swing was divided into three despite being the same period of time (but for the other leg). This made it virtually impossible to talk about what one leg was doing while the other leg was doing something else. At least this made things simpler. Shock-absorption started to be used for the phase when the upward movement of the body was being speeded up and push-off of for that when its downward movement was being slowed. Heel strike was adopted for the instant (or was it a phase?) when the foot contacted the ground despite many people not using their heel and very few of them striking the ground to any appreciable extent.

The plantar flexion knee extension couple was introduced despite the fact it clearly wasn’t a couple and three rockers invented despite no-one really knowing what a rocker was. The Americans assumed it was a quaint Anglo-Saxon term whilst the English assumed it was some new-fangled American word. Speakers of English as a second language just assumed they had slept through that lesson. When it was finally established that rocker didn’t have a specific meaning a fourth was added in celebration.

There was a backlash against terms that oversimplified complex concepts and very soon a demand emerged to balance this with other terms that would overcomplicate simple ones. A double bump in the ankle plantarflexion moment thus became a widely accepted alternative to “toe walking”. One group even went as far as to suggest that treatments that resulted in toe walkers achieving a heel contact be described as having effected a biomechanical transformation.

A challenge to the hegemony emerged from a perky Canadian who asserted that it was possible to understand walking by plotting joint moments. This was immediately recognised as a threat by the establishment. If walking could be understood then there might be an obligation on them to understand it. This might compel them to learn biomechanics which was clearly a bad thing. The solution was elegantly simple. They introduced some doubt as to whether internal or external moments should be plotted. (A radical splinter group even extending this to plotting some of the graphs upside down). This essentially made it impossible to categorically distinguish between the action of an agonist and its antagonist in normal conversation and successfully curtailed any useful contribution from the new approach. The status quo was re-established and the establishment was heard to exhale a collective sigh of relief.

Everyone understood what normal walking was but then some kind person realised that this forced them to talk about their patients as being abnormal which didn’t sound very nice. There was a competition to find an alternative which several people entered but nobody won. People still seemed happy to refer to these people as subjects. This sounded even less nice to some people but after the experience with normal they were largely ignored. A small group pointed out that referring to diplegic patients “put the disability before the patient” and went around scribbling out the term whenever they saw it and replacing it with patients with diplegia. At least this kept these people occupied and prevented them doing anything more damaging. In some fields the equivalent phrases were so unwieldy that they were replaced with abbreviations such as PwPD or PwMS. The end result of this process was thus to reduce groups of people who had previously had the dignity of being described by words to the ignominy of only ever being referred to by abbreviations.

The crowning glory was in achieving universal agreement that crouch gait was the biggest enemy but universal disagreement on what the term meant. Eventually it was decided to let everyone write their own definition – problem solved.

I gather this work is still in progress and if any readers would like to contribute additional examples of linguistic development in gait analysis as comments to this post then these will all be considered for inclusion in the definitive version.



  1. Thanks for sharing, Richard. I benefit daily in your efforts to simplify and advance the science of gait analysis.

  2. LOL!!!!
    The best reading I´ve had in a while!!!
    Thanks for sharing Professsor Baker. There will be more reflections about the “Push-off” term?
    I just can´t wait to read the full text.

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