The analysis of wear on polyethylene components that have been retrieved after use in patients has provided invaluable understanding of how wear occurs in vivo, and how it may be minimized through improved materials and implant design. The great number of such studies that have been published over the past three decades has lead to an extensive vocabulary to describe the tribology of prosthetic joints. However, these also have led to some confusion, due to the occasional misuse of terms from classical tribology, along with the use of multiple terms to describe the same wear phenomenon, and vice versa. The author has proposed that our understanding of wear in artificial joints may be enhanced by recognizing that there are four general subject areas: Modes, Mechanisms, Damage and Debris. Wear Mode 1 occurs when the two bearing surfaces are articulating against each other in the manner intended by the implant designer. Mode 2 occurs when a bearing surface articulates against a non-bearing surface. Mode 3 occurs when third-body abrasive particles have become entrapped between the two bearing surfaces, and Mode 4 occurs when two non-bearing surfaces are wearing against each other. The least wear occurs in Mode 1, whereas severe wear typically occurs in Modes 2, 3 and 4. The classical wear mechanisms that apply to prosthetic joints include adhesion, abrasion and fatigue. These can occur in varying amounts in either of the four wear modes. As used in the literature for the past three decades, wear "damage" can best be defined as the change surface texture or morphology that is caused by the action of the wear mechanisms. Although a wide variety of terms have been used, an overview of the literature indicates that about eight terms have been sufficient to describe the types of damage that occur on retrieved polyethylene components, i.e., burnishing, abrasion, scratches, plastic deformation, cracks, pits, delamination, and embedded third bodies. The author suggests that, as far as possible, investigators endeavor to limit their descriptions of surface damage to these terms and, importantly, to clearly and consistently distinguish the classical wear mechanisms from the types of damage produced by those mechanisms. Wear debris refers to the billions of particles, some measuring in nanometers, that are generated by the wear mechanisms, and that initiate biological reactions, such as osteolysis, that may lead to the failure of the implant. As the methods for recovering wear debris from joint fluids and tissues are improved, investigators are using a growing number of terms to describe them. As with the types of damage, it will be important in the coming years to maximize clarity and minimize redundancy of the vocabulary in this important area of research.