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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.


A portmanteau word from pacify and mollify.

Rapid beating of the heart.

A disease of the nervous system characterized by impairment or suspension of muscular action or sensation, or paralysis. A tremor is common. It is part of many ailments where paralysis and tremor are symptoms such as cerebral, creeping, Saturday night, scrivener's, shaking, Bell's palsy, dead palsy, etc. (OED 1250).

A remedy of all diseases.

A soft or semi-liquid food, such as bread softened in milk, given to invalids.

paregoric – often used as paregoric elixir 
A pain-relieving medicinal preparation, often an opiate. Paregoric elixir was camphorated tincture of opium (tincture of opium containing camphor, benzoic acid, and anise oil), used originally as a painkiller and later as an antispasmodic and for the treatment of withdrawal symptoms in newborn infants of narcotic-addicted mothers.

Dead drunk.

paralysis agitans
Parkinson's disease (OED 1817). Named after Dr. James Parkinson, the English physician, who identified it. It is a fatal, degenerative disease of the central nervous system which usually comes on in middle age.

An obsolete term for paranoid schizophrenia. A mental illness with paranoid or other delusional symptoms. Late paraphrenia is a psychotic state with paranoid delusions and hallucinations occurring in the elderly.

Fleas and or lice, both of which transfer diseases to humans.

Very thirsty.

paregoric elixir
A medicinal preparation meant for pain relieve, soothing. Its recipe was listed in the Pharmacopoeia Collegii Regalis Medicorum, Londinensis (1745) as consisting of opium camphor, benzoic acid, and anise oil. It was later used for the treatment of withdrawal symptoms in newborn infants of narcotic-addicted mothers.

paresis; general paresis
Loss of mental function including partial paralysis and hallucinations caused by untreated syphilis. Also, called general paresis of the insane. Now called neurosyphillis (OED 1862).

An uncontrollable outburst.


The head (Grose).

1. Description of a disease (OED 1848).
2. Study of the life of a person or community with regard to a particular disease (OED 1917).

A large belly that men get in middle age (Grose).

peaked, peaky
Ill looking (19th cent. Northern U.S.).

1. Sinning or offending.
2. Morbid, unhealthy or corrupt.

A medicine, food, or drink considered good for digestive or respiratory complaints. They help to loosen the phlegm in the throat so it can be coughed or spat out (1599). Patent medicines called pectorals were mainly for respiratory ailments. Pectis is latin for chest.

pediculus capitis
The head louse.

pediculus vestimenti
The body louse, often found in clothes, the vector of many diseases.


Various skin diseases characterized by severe, life-threatening blisters. The several types commonly known by Latin names, as pemphigus erythematosus, pemphigus foliaceus, pemphigus vegetans, pemphigus vulgaris (OED 1779). Secondary infections are often introduced through the raw patches of skin. Greek pemphix = pustule.

Infected with venereal disease (M&C 181).

Striking or tapping of the chest, back, etc. with the fingertips to determine from the sound produced the condition of internal organs  (YA 196).

peruvian bark 
Cinchona succirubra, a febrifuge, tonic and astringent; Cure for malaria. Also known as Jesuit’s Powder because originally they were the only Europeans with access to it from its native habitat in South America where they went as missionaries (M&C 138, DI 90).

Another word for tampon, used to stop bleeding or absorb secretions.

An epidemic disease or pestilence.

pest hospital
An isolation hospital for smallpox patients or lepers.

petechia, petechiae
A small red or purple spot on the skin, caused by extravasation of blood, occurring in certain fevers.

Irritability, a symptom of many ailments and general ill-health.

To whine.

Phantom flesh
Loose hanging skin, often seen after a serious illness in which the patient lost a lot of weight (OED 1679).

An authoritative book containing a list of medicines with their uses, preparation and dosages.

A small bottle for liquids.

The face (HMSS 339).

A surgical incision of a vein. Bloodletting.

Lack of emotion in adversity (TMC 242).

Sluggish, dull or apathetic.

phossy jaw
An occupational disease of match workers during the 19th century, causing necrosis of the jaw due to the inhalation or ingestion of white phosphorus. The fumes entered the mucous membrane of the mouth and nose. The phosphorus penetrated the bones of the jaws destroying it. The girls' jaws would glow with a bluish light. Death was inevitable, slow and agonizing.

phthisis, phthisical
A disease-causing wasting of the body, especially pulmonary tuberculosis.

1. Medicine, relating to medicine, or to treat with medicine.|
2. A doctor.

physical bob
A wig of a type worn by physicians in the 17th and 18th centuries when they were the mark of a gentleman.

physical gent, gentleman, chap
A physician.

physical medicine 
Medicine performed by a physician, as opposed to a surgeon (TMC 91).

A glass from which medicine is taken.

A person qualified through licensing by a medical college to diagnose illnesses and prescribe drugs. Entitled to use "Dr." Considered a gentleman, they did not do anything physical to a patient except perhaps listen to a pulse. They did not bleed, bandage wounds or set bones which were the work of a surgeon.

physician of the fleet
The highest medical officer in a Royal Navy. Fleet.

The fruit of Curcas purgans, used as a purgative.

A metal spoon with hinged lid and tubular handle, with a narrow spout used for giving medicines, especially castor oil.

A student of the relationship between a person’s appearance and personality.

A student of physiology.

The branch of science concerned with the functioning of organisms.

Punctured, as in a sharp instrument piercing the flesh.

pigeon breasted
A common term for a condition where the breast bones are prominent but the ribs have collapsed perhaps due to rickets, a nutrition disease, which softens and deforms the bones.

pills from the same box
Medicines with a similar effect.

To stab or wound with a small sword.

pink eye
Another term for conjunctivitis, inflammation of the eye.

pissing pins and needles
Pain upon urination is a symptom of gonorrhoea, a venereal disease.

piss prophet
A physician who diagnoses the ailments of his patients solely by examining their urine.

piss proud
To have a false erection caused by the need to urinate (U.S. 19th cent.).

pissybed, piss-a-bed, pissabed

The dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, used a diuretic. Also called blowball, puffball, piss-a-bed, lion's teeth, priest's crown, wild endive. It is is a member of the Asteraceae family (OED 1565).

A highly infectious.often fatal disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is transmitted primarily by the bite of a rat flea and occurs in bubonic, pneumonic, and septicaemic forms.

plaister of warm guts
One warm belly against another. A therapy prescribed for several disorders.

A small wound dressing, especially for use as a pressure bandage.

plethora, plethory
An abnormal condition characterized by an excess of blood in the circulatory system or in some part of it, especially dilation of superficial blood vessels, resulting in a reddish complexion.

Inflammation of the pleura, the thin membrane covering the surface of the lung. Dry pleurisy produces a harsh cough. Wet pleurisy means that liquid is trapped behind it and will cause stabbing chest pain. Chronic swelling will compress the lungs and people hunch over to relieve their breathing which over time leads to curvature of the spine (OED 1398).

An inflammation of the lungs, resulting in extreme difficulty in breathing.

pocket lancet
A folding lancet which was used to make a small cut in a vein through which a patient would be bled.

A small scar, usually on the face or neck, resulting from an eruptive disease, such as smallpox, measles, chickenpox.

Severe pain in the large toe, like gout (Old English). Late,r it referred to acute arthritis affecting the large toe and mimicking gout (1608).    

The swollen belly of a pregnant woman. She has been poisoned (U.S. 19th cent.).

poisonous spur
A sharp protuberance on the hind leg of the platypus, capable of injecting venom.

Apollinaris Springwater. A mineral water from the Apollinaris Springs in Germany. Supposedly the site of a shrine to Apollo, the Greek and Roman deity. Commonly called "polly" introduced into England in 1870 (Wain, p. 22).

polypody of the oak
A fern whose dried root is used as a mild laxative, a tonic for dyspepsia and loss of appetite.

popliteal aneurism
An enlargement of part of the popliteal artery, just behind the knee joint. If it ruptured, the results were usually fatal.


Unwell, in ill health (OED 1570).

An obsolete term for several scalp diseases. Latin for dandruff.

portable soup 
Soup stock, in solid slabs. Used in the British Navy.

A drink of hot milk curdled with beer and flavoured with spices, as a remedy for colds.


A purulent swelling or cyst in any part of the body; an abscess (OED c.1400).

1.occurring, arising, or continuing after death. (OED 1608)
2.A child born after the death of its father. (OED 1640)

Fit for human consumption.

Potter's Field
From the Bible, Mathew XXVII, 7, the burial ground bought with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas had been paid to betray Jesus which Judas threw away before killing himself. It was called potter's field because potters had mined their clay there. It was purchased to bury strangers thus the term refers to place where the city buries people, usually the poor, free of charge.

French term for bubo.

A moist, often heated pad applied to the skin by means of a bandage to improve circulation, promote healing, reduce swelling, and relieve pain (OED c1400).

A drug prepared in powdered form. It may be administered by placing it on the tongue and washed over with water; but others have to mixed with water before being taken.

powder of Algaroth
A white powder which is a compound of trichloride and trioxide of antimony. It was used as an emetic, purgative, and diaphoretic.

A burn caused by exposure to a gunpowder explosion.

A common term for syphilis, a venereal disease.

To be infected with syphilis, a venereal disease.

Prairie bitters
Medicinal drink made of buffalo gall or bile, a secretion of the liver, and water. Very bitter taste (19th cent Western U.S.).

pratique boat
The vessel which gave permission for a ship to enter a foreign port after having satisfied local health requirements.

Written instruction for the supply and usage of a drug.

A point in the body, above an artery, which when pressed will control bleeding on the side away from the heart.

pricking aches

prickly heat
An acute itching skin eruption, caused by blocking of the sweat glands.

primary resection
Resection is the excision of part of a bone or organ. Primary resection is surgery performed at the earliest possible stage before inflammation supervenes; secondary is surgery performed after suppuration has set in.

private corpse
A cadaver obtained by a medical student for private anatomical study.

private parts, privates

A toilet.

A symptom indicating the onset of a disease.

promoter of Venus
A person who encourages sexual activity.

An individual-sized prophylactic kit used in the United States army intended for use after sex for venereal disease prevention. It usually contained a soap impregnated cloth, tissue and a small tube of calomel-sulfathiazole ointment (U.S. 20th cent.).

Abbreviation for the prophylactic station. A medical station on or near a United States military base where servicemen were required to report when they returned from leave for venereal disease preventive treatment. (U.S. 20th cent.).

prostration, prostrating
Utter physical or mental exhaustion or helplessness.

proud flesh
A mass of new tissue formed on the surface of a healing ulcer or wound (OED 1400).

Excessive flow of saliva.

pucker water
The water mixes with alum or other astringents used to fake virginity (Grose).

puerperal insanity
Postpartum depression.

puerperal sepsis or fever
Infection of a woman's genital tract within 21 days of abortion or childbirth. Usually caused the unwashed hands of the attending health care worker. It used to cause a high mortality rate among new mothers before gloves and handwashing became the norm, especially in hospital births.

pule, puling
To cry or whine.

pulvis doveri
Dover’s powder, powdered drug-containing ipecac and opium, formerly used to relieve pain and induce perspiration.

pump water
A person with a red face because it's been dunked in cold pump water.

1. A small, weak child.
2. A sensitive stomach.

Has poor eyesight.

purgative, to purge, purging
A drug for emptying or purging the bowels, a laxative. Purgatives were a common therapy prior to the mid 19th century when science finally became the basis of medical therapy. An intrinsic part of heroic medicine and the humour theory of wellness and illness.

A medicine used to evacuate the bowels; a laxative. Purgatives were a common therapy prior to the mid 19th century when science finally became the basis of medical therapy. An intrinsic part of heroic medicine and the humour theory of wellness and illness.

Any of various diseases characterized by a dark red or purplish rash (OED 1518).

A symptom of a disease due to a morbid state of blood or blood vessels, characterized by purple or livid spots scattered irregularly over the skin, with great debility and depression.

pursy, pursive
Shortness of breath due to obesity.

pus fever
The fever that signified septicemia after a wound became infected from the pus of another person's wound. 

pus, laudable
Pus forming in a wound was thought to be a sign that the wound was healing, that it was expelling poisons that might be infecting the wound.