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Antique and Obscure Words for Students in the History of Health and Medicine

The words we use reflect our society and come in and out of usage as our society changes. The words in these lists have largely faded out of current use but they fill the older publications.


Severe constipation, intestinal obstruction (OED 1612).

Having an obstruction of a body passage, esp. of the gastrointestinal, urinary, biliary, or respiratory tract. eg. severely constipated (OED 1662).

An old term for ophthalmologist.

Nervousness caused to women by bicycle riding.

official chest
Medicine chest. Wooden box that physician or surgeon kept the drugs he had on hand with which to treat his patients.

oil of amber
A pale yellow-to-brownish essential oil of empyreumatic odor and acrid taste, made by destructive distillation of amber.

oil of cloves
A powerful antiseptic and soothing dressing for toothache.

oil of sesame
A soothing oil.

oiled silk-stone
A fine-grained whetstone to which oil had been applied.

A preparation applied to the skin to heal or protect.

old Joe
Another name for syphilis, a venereal disease used in the United States military (U.S. 20th cent.).

old sight
The short-sightedness of old age.

old soldier’s disease
Addiction to opiates, originally prescribed for chronic pain caused by a wound.

old wives' remedies
Traditional remedies.

Not in good health.

Disease caused by severe overcrowding of sick people as in a hospital (OED 1848).

1. A fever that recurs every seventh day by inclusive calculating every eighth day (OED 1799).
2. Of a fever that recurs every seventh day by inclusive calculating every eighth day (OED 1835). Other fevers occurred quintan (every third day), sextan (every fifth day), septan (every sixth day) (OED 1897).

Mental deficiency or retardation (OED 1899). Oligo- is a Greek term meaning having few or little of something. Used at the beginning of many medical words. The opposite of poly- a Greek term meaning having a lot or many of something.

omphalomancy divination by the navel, specifically divining the number of future children a woman is to have by counting the number of knots on the umbilical cord of a baby born to her (OED 1652).

1. Masturbation-
2. coitus interruptus (OED 1718).
From Onan, son of Judah, was ordered by his father to beget children with the wife of his brother who had died childless. He did not wish to beget children who would not belong to him, so he did not complete copulation but let his semen fall on the ground, for which God punished him with death. Biblical injunction against masturbation (OED 1642).

on the gain
Recuperating (U.S. 19th cent.).

open their veins
To bleed a patient in order to rebalance the body's humours.

A narcotic drug containing opium, used medically as a pain reliever or anaesthetic. Addictive.

A rigid arching of the back and neck.

An addictive narcotic drug derived from the opium poppy.

orange peel, decoction 
Orange peel boiled in water, used to mask the taste of the bark and to help settle their stomachs. (DI 90)

oriental apothecary
A dispenser of Chinese remedies.

The powdered rhizome of the common yellow water iris (Iris pseudacorus) with a delightful violet scent, so is much used in potpourri. Medicinally, it is used to check diarrhoea and leucorrhea, and to ease menstrual pains. 

1. A receptacle (as an urn, vault, etc.) for the bones of the dead.
2. A building where bones are accumulated; a charnel house OED 1658).

A surgical instrument used for fracturing bones (OED 1846).

The study of the structure and function of bones (NC 77).

os uteri
The opening of the cervix into the vagina (OED 1638).

Slang word for the human skeleton, from osteology, the study of the structure and function of bones.

To be dissected.

Found in the seeds of lianas of the related genus Strophanthus, it has been used from time out of mind by East African tribes for both medical purposes and, in much more concentrated doses, as a poison for their spears and arrows (OED 1888).

1. A sore. (OED 1612)
2. A wound. (OED 1736)

ovarian dropsy
Possibly an ovarian cyst which can be full of fluid.


1. A type of shellfish with a thick, rough, whitish shell.
2. Gob of thick phlegm spit out by a person suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. From latin, umum viridum gobbum