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Chiropractic is a Funny Word

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

The word seems to beg the question: Chiropractic what? It sounds like it should be an adjective, but it’s also a noun as in “I practice chiropractic.” Period. The clumsiness of this word should itself be a warning to potential patients that something about this profession is not right. The word, a combination of the Greek words chiro- or cheir, meaning hand, and praktikos or practical [1], denotes the practical application of the hands, literally “done by hand.” The word shares a common root with the words surgery—from the Greek cheirourgia, working or doing by hand—chiropody, an antiquated term for the profession of podiatry—and chiromancy or palm reading. The term itself was coined by Rev. Samuel H. Weed, a Presbyterian minister, at the request of D.D. Palmer, chiropractic’s founder [2].

Chiropractic in its common applications is both an adjective and a noun, but its use as a noun is inelegant. Consider these three examples:

1. D.D. Palmer was the founder of chiropractic.

2. Chiropractic utilizes manipulation to correct spinal misalignments.

3. My husband gets chiropractic treatments.

To people who are not conversant with the chiropractic lexicon, the first two of these sentences may leave the reader hanging. The term Doctor of Chiropractic, the doctorate degree awarded upon successful completion of a chiropractic education, is at best inconvenient. The tongue can say it, but the mind stumbles. Chiropractic Doctor would be more straightforward; it’s the same syntax used in the title Medical Doctor. Using chiropractic as an adjective, as in sentence 3, feels comfortable in our mouths. Terms such as chiropractic care, chiropractic clinic, and chiropractic education are easy to spit out because they conform to a commonly practiced language structure, namely that -ic words are frequently used as adjectives. WordToolbox lists 263 nouns ending in -ic [3] Many work both as adjectives and nouns. Most people would not break a syntactical sweat when faced with words like alcoholic, fanatic, critic, or narcoleptic. These, and many other -ic words like diabetic, romantic, and mosaic, are easily recognizable as either nouns or adjectives by their context in a sentence, as in the following two examples:

4. A characteristic of attention deficit disorder is impulsivity.

5. Miraculously, the ceramic bowl did not break when it fell to the floor.

But when faced with the challenge of applying the word chiropractic as a noun, people attempt grammatical contortions like chiropractics and chiropractry. This is often seen in lay—and not-so-lay—use. On Fluther, an online question and answer collective, someone asked about the noun form of the adjective chiropractic. “… a doctor practices medicine, a plumber practices plumbing, does a chiropractor practice chiropracting or chiropractry, or other?” [4] Of the ten respondents who answered the question, three agreed the appropriate term was chiropractry. Six additional answers were not flattering to the chiropractic profession. None was correct. A friend who is an ESL teacher and lifelong Francophile commented that if the US had a language-judging body like the Académie Française, “chiropractics” would probably have been imposed long ago, thus bringing the profession’s title into conformity with other professional and academic disciplines such as physics, genetics, forensics, and mathematics as well as medical specialties like orthopedics and pediatrics. But chiropractors, by nature a recalcitrant bunch, would rise up in arms if forced to modify the label under which they practice.

Making matters worse is the profession’s wont of capitalizing the word as in the phrase the science, art, and philosophy of Chiropractic. Elevating the word to the status of a proper noun lends it an aura of reverence. Chiropractic is not just another healing art like medicine, dentistry, or acupuncture—written in all lower case letters. No! To practice Chiropractic, to be a Chiropractor, means to be an exceptional person, a member of a singularly noteworthy, remarkable, extraordinary calling. (It will be a convention of this website to not capitalize the words chiropractor and chiropractic except where indicated by the rules of grammar or when used in a quote.)

The word chiropractic is itself a cause of dis-ease. The discomfiture evoked by the use of chiropractic as a noun prompts many to substitute the adjective form. Chiropractic medicine avoids that klutzy stand-alone noun. For the profession’s orthodox, however, the term is a bitter cup to swallow, an apparent oxymoron, incongruently pairing the revered with the reviled. Traditional chiropractors loathe the appellation chiropractic medicine and insist they do not practice any type of medicine. (Chiropractors will also tell you they don’t make a diagnosis; rather, they perform analysis to determine which spinal vertebrae should be adjusted.) I resisted the term chiropractic medicine until late in my career. Now I am more comfortable with the term. It is used by chiropractors who seek to reform the profession.

Chiropractic physician is also worthy of further consideration. This term truly is an oxymoron. Harkening back to the days of heroic medicine, a physician was a doctor who administered a physic, i.e., an emetic, a purgative or cathartic⁠ [5] or, in a broader sense, a medicine. Chiropractors are generally opposed to administering or prescribing pharmaceuticals, although it is quite common for chiropractors to dispense vitamins, dietary supplements, and herbal and homeopathic remedies [6]. I believe chiropractors adopt the title chiropractic physician to make themselves appear more legitimate and raise their status in the public eye. I applied this honorific after my own name throughout my career to indicate my status was equal to that of a medical doctor—a conceit—but also to distinguish myself from “straight” chiropractors who would never identify themselves as physicians of any sort. I am now more uncomfortable with the term, both because it is inaccurate and because of the implied hubris. The title is codified in many state statutes and proscribed in some.

Magic is a word that is most similar to chiropractic in its usage. Magic can be substituted for chiropractic in sentences 1, 2, and 3, above, without much difficulty. Of course, the meaning of each sentence is changed, but in the first two the flow is improved. Is there a hidden significance in this coincidence?

* * *

So if chiropractic is such a troublesome word, why not change it? A profession’s name is not immutable. A lot of job titles have changed in order to be gender neutral. Do you know anyone who complains that airline stewardesses—and stewards—are now called flight attendants? That actresses are now actors? That heroines are now heroes? (Okay, there are probably a few who object.) Perhaps the most well-known change of a professional name was the switch from chiropody to podiatry. This occurred in the 1960s when its schools began granting the DPM (Doctor of Podiatric Medicine) degree [7]. Ostensibly, the reason chiropody was abandoned was that people kept confusing chiropodists with chiropractors [8]. No doubt my mother had something to do with the name change, as mentioned elsewhere on this site [9].

But we will probably have to suffer the noun form of my profession’s name for as long as chiropractors continue to crack spines because chiropractors have and undoubtedly will continue to resist attempts to change this title. In 1986 the American Chiropractic Association’s (ACA) Legal Counsel, Harry N. Rosenfield, wrote an opinion piece in the association’s journal called Planning for Chiropractic’s Future [10] in which he stated,

The time has come when chiropractic must hear some straight talk and must consider some new and different thoughts that are not customarily in the self-contained dialogue of chiropractic’s world. [My emphasis]

Rosenfield’s “Ten Point Prescription for Chiropractic Planning” called for giving “serious consideration … to changing the profession’s name, just as ‘chiropody’ changed to ‘podiatry,’ to its great advantage.” Then, going from heresy to apostasy, he questioned the necessity of chiropractic’s attachment to the concept of subluxation. “Has chiropractic matured sufficiently as a profession to eliminate its traditional relation with subluxation?” He foresaw these and other recommendations—some equally as shocking, such as ending opposition to vaccinations—as creating greater credibility for the profession, improving healthcare services, and resulting in “greater acceptance by the public, by other health care professions, and by Federal and State legislators and officials.”

The reaction to Rosenfield’s prescription for change was swift and certain. Of six letters to the editor published by the Journal of Chiropractic [11], only two were favorable. The others voiced strong opposition to many of his proposals. Despite Rosenfield’s call for unity within chiropractic, one doctor wrote, “… what we don’t need is more factionalism from within to further disunify our unique and desperately-needed profession. … [Rosenfield] is severely lacking [emphasis in original] in several other key areas, most notably ‘eliminating its (chiropractic’s) traditional relationship with subluxation.’ Chiropractic is [emphasis in original] the vertebral subluxation and removal [i.e., correction] of same, Mr. Rosenfield!” Regarding the recommended name change, “I see no need to change what has been perfectly acceptable for 91 years.”

Another doctor wrote, “… do you know you’re representing the chiropractic profession and not the AMA? … you criticize the profession you’re supposed to be counseling for taking a stand against inoculation, then you stress the importance of ‘taking principled positions’ on issues which you [emphasis in original] must feel are health hazards, e.g., pollution and smoking.” And another doctor: “I can’t believe that ACA retains this man for legal counsel. If failure of making these changes means ‘professional suicide’ as he states, then give me the sword! Why should we give up what has taken our forefathers 90 years to build?”

The harshest criticism came from Dr. Fred Barge, a champion of the straight chiropractic point of view.

I heartily agree with Mr. Rosenfield … that the chiropractic profession should consider a name change.

Those in the profession who ape and parrot medicine, who want to drop our opposition to inoculation, who manipulate rather than adjust; those who treat disease through all common domain therapies, who now want the use of drugs and even injectibles … should change their name! [Emphasis in original.] My suggestion would be “Holiopathy.” D.H.—Holipathic doctors.

Please leave chiropractic to those who cherish it, who wish to maintain it in the purity of its philosophy and traditional concepts. Unlike osteopathy [12], our principles are sound and have stood the test of time. Leave the name chiropractic for the chiropractors.

The answer to Harry Rosenfield’s, question“Has the chiropractic profession matured enough to move away from its time-honored association with the vertebral subluxation?” was a resounding NO! And 35 years later here we are, still practicing chiropractic and adjusting subluxations.


1. Chiropractic. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 May 28]. Available from:

2. Palmer D.D. Text-Book of the Science, Art and Philosophy of Chiropractic. Portland, Oregon: Portland Printing House Company; 1910, p. 12.

3. Nouns ending with ic | WordToolbox [Internet]. [cited 2020 May 28]. Available from:

4. Chiropractic is the adjective, but what does a chiropractor practice, chiropractry? [Internet]. [cited 2020 May 28]. Available from:

5. Purgatives or cathartics are medicines that accelerate defecation causing evacuation of the entire colon. They are not mere laxatives, which make defecating easier, usually resulting in the passage of formed stool from the rectum. (TMI? Sorry.)

6. A few states, like Oregon, allow chiropractors to recommend prescription doses of over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen. New Mexico allows its chiropractors to write scripts for a limited number of controlled substances.

7. The History of Podiatry [Internet]. Advance Foot and Ankle Center. 2019 [cited 2021 Feb 11]. Available from:

8. The Difference Between Chiropodists and Podiatrists (accessed Feb 11, 2021).

9. My mother also invented the wine cooler by combining Manischewitz wine with 7-Up, a drink she served to children at the seder table at Passover. (Gallo is hereby put on notice.)

10. Rosenfield, H. Planning for Chiropractic’s Future. ACA Journal of Chiropractic 1986, 23 (10), 5–10.

11. Pro and Con On Harry Rosenfield Outlook Column. ACA Journal of Chiropractic 1986, 23 (12), 15–19.

12. Osteopathy, a profession that historically emphasized spinal manipulation, preceded the advent of chiropractic by two decades. Osteopathic schools were upgraded to medical colleges in the 1960s, and osteopaths were granted licenses to practice medicine and surgery. The practices of most US osteopaths today are indistinguishable from those of their medical colleagues.

About J. Michael Burke, D.C.

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During 45 years of diverse experience as a chiropractor, I have witnessed and documented many facets of the profession and the follies of many chiropractors, myself included. My involvement in various activities and endeavors has ranged from cracking necks and backs to developing a managed alternative healthcare network to investigating fraud.

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