Historic Medical Terms
Grammarian, heal thyself
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock.” A newsletter for word nerds. Make sure you don’t miss a single issue.
“All pain is one malady with many names.” —Antiphanes, c. 400 BC
Given the CDC has eased mask guidelines (because evidently at 1,500 deaths a day, it’s no longer a concern), I thought it was an appropriate time to look at words associated with disease.
The reality is that at some point, we need to look beyond pandemic and begin treating this as endemic — that is, simply a persistent, if uncomfortable, natural occurrence.
And that’s exactly what some diseases were to our ancestors. Afflictions, maladies, and conditions were a part of existence, and over time, they developed remedies to counter them.
Simultaneously, they also viewed more serious diseases as supernatural in origin. Spells, curses, demonic possession, an offended god or some other malevolent force entered the victim’s body and sometimes his soul. And in such cases, the “cure” was sometimes worse than the disease.
Aelius Galenus (129–216 A.D.), otherwise known as Galen, is widely considered the father of modern medicine. He was both a physician and philosopher, and he his study of the Antonine Plague gives us the first detailed view of a pandemic.
Obviously, medicine evolved over the ensuing 1,500 years (although not by much, in some cases) and there were other pandemics, including the Black Death (1346–1353) and the Great Plague of London (1665–1666), which killed a quarter of London’s population in 18 months.
Against that backdrop and keeping in mind that you’re here on Saturdays to satisfy your curiosity about words, here’s a look at some obscure medical terms of the time related to the cause of death, from London in 1632.
And if you can make it through the entire list, I’ve got a surprise for you at the end.
Feverish illness, often malaria
Dysentery or bloody diarrhea
Death after giving birth
Death of unbaptized infant
Severe abdominal pain
Cut of the stone
Death from surgery to cut out bladder or kidney stones
Dropsie and swelling
Edema (swelling of a body part)
Epilepsy or seizures
Lockjaw or tetanus
Scrofula (it was said a king’s touch would cure it.)
Made away themselves
Death of infant due to unintentionally smothering
Sudden illness that was thought to occur due to the movement of planets
Swollen, inflamed lungs
Rising of the lights
Lungs were often referred to as “lights” since they were organs that were lightweight. “Rising” may have referred to the rising of the chest during a coughing fit.
Typhus or meningitis
Starved at nurse
Insufficient breast milk
An unknown, sudden death
Overeating or vomiting from overeating.
Coughing due to tuberculosis
For a handful of these conditions, it should be easy to infer their meanings, even without the description. For example, purples are what we would commonly call a “black and blue.” And starved at nurse is fairly understandable as well. Suddenly seems both obvious and vague at the same time.
Some of these terms are still partially in use. Bell’s palsy and cerebral palsy indicate a type of paralysis; thrush and colic are still used with respect to infants.
You can see how much the English thought of the French, as they named an STD after them.
And now, that treat I mentioned above. It involves the Grandpa Simpson babysitting for Maggie, in which, flummoxed over her gestures, he refers to a Guide to Infantile Distress by Doc Washburn’s Asbestos Pills:
Stay healthy out there.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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