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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.


saddle nose
The concave nose is a common indication of syphillis. Also called Zaufal's sign after Emanuel Zaufal, (1833-1910), the Austrian rhinologist who made the association.

sailors diseases
Venereal diseases, sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea.

 Saint Anthony's Fire
Also called erysipelas, a skin inflammation which causes the skin to become red and swollen with a painful, burning sensation. It spreads easily over the skin and is contagious.

Saint Vitrus Dance
A disease that causes the twitching of muscles.

sal ammoniac
Ammonium chloride (OED 1325).  Used as smelling salt to revive people who have fainted.

saline enemata
A saline solution was used as an enema (OED 1681).

salt sore
Skin lesion caused by the exposure to salt water or the abrasion of the skin by salt grains in clothes, linens, etc.,(OED 1908).

The long, narrow muscle that allows us to throw one leg and thigh over the other. Means tailor's muscle because tailors traditionally sat cross legged as they sewed (OED 1704).

A former proprietary name for arsphenamine. In 1907, the German chemist, Paul Ehrlich synthesized an arsenic compound that was effective in the treatment of syphilis because it killed its causitive microrganism, Treponema pallidum (OED 1910).

A healing ointment for wounds or sores (OED c700), e.g. eyesalve, lipsalve.

Sometimes misspelled "sanatarium", this is an isolation hospital for the treatment of tuberculosis. Many communities had a sanatorium on the outskirts of town because tuberculosis was such a widespread and debilitating disease until the 1950's when drug treatment was finally available.

sandlewood oil
The oil distilled from the Santalam alban. It was used medicinally as a treatment for gonorrhea.

Cheerful and confident.

sanguine complexion
Ruddy in appearance.

A malignancy of the connective or supporting tissues, such as fat, muscle, nerves, tendons, ligaments, bone or cartilage (HMSS 119).

From the dried roots of the smilax. Used medicinally as a treatment for chronic rheumatism, skin diseases and sphyllis. 

Sartorious muscle
The large leg muscle is also called the tailor's muscle because it is the chief muscle used when sitting cross legged, the classic posture of a tailor at work (early 17th cent.).

A tree of the laurel family; the dried root bark of this tree, infused into tea as a medicinal drink. The word means "stone breaker" in Latin because this drink was thought to break up bladder stones.

satanic boletus
Boletus satanas. An extremely poisonous mushroom.

Having a gloomy temperament.

Chronic lead poisoning, named after the planet, Saturn. The ancient Greeks thought the planets were constituted of the 8 elements and that Saturn was made of lead.

Pickled white cabbage, believed to be a remedy for scurvy. This was based on the apparent resistance to the disease in the Dutch navy, in whose diet sauerkraut was a staple.

A surgeon.

scald head
Also called ringworm. A skin eruption which often appears on the scalp. Hair was shaved and the afflicted part was painted with iodine.

Scarlet fever, not necessarily a milder form of the disease as the word seems to suggest (OED 1803).

A syndrome characterized by pain radiating from the back into the buttock and into the lower extremity along its posterior or lateral aspect and most commonly caused by prolapse of the intervertebral disk, the term is also used to refer to pain anywhere along the course of the sciatic nerve.

Lateral curvature of the spine.

Latinized form of the English word, scurvy, a popular term for Vitamin E deficiency. An attempt to dignify it by physicians.

Scotch douche
A form of hydrotherapy using quick changes of water temperature, first advocated by Scottish physician, William Cullen around 1760.

Scotch fiddle
The itch (U.S. 19th cent.).

Scott's Emulsion and treacle and sulphur
Scott's Emulsion was a proprietary, all purpose medicine combined with molasses and sulphur,19th-early 20th cent. U.K. "We had to take Scott's Emulsion and treacle and sulphur. The treacle helped to hid the taste of the sulphur. It was a spring tonic, to purify the blood" (Pain and Pleasure, p.19).

A hard, firm, and almost painless swelling or tumour; now spec. a hard, fibrous cancer (OED 1615).

1. An operation to remove any pieces of placenta from the uterus after delivery to prevent bleeding or infection.
2. An abortion.  

screw jaws
A wry mouthed person (U.S. 19th cent.).

the screws
Rheumatism (Worth, p. 204).

A constitutional disease characterized by chronic enlargement of the lymphatic glands (OED c1400). The sovereign of England was thought to have a healing touch so on Maundy Tuesday he would touch the sores of scrofulous patients. Medallions were given out to each touched person. Queen Anne was the last to do this. Also called king's evil, struma and tuberculosis of the lymph glands. From Latin for sow, and meant literally little pig. The necks of afflicted children would swell until they resembled a pig.

scrofulous ears
Infected ears (PC 325).

A unit of weight of about 1.3 grams.

An old fashioned word for dandruff, a skin condition where the skin flakes off in large quantities.

A disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency, exacerbated by the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables on long voyages.

scurvy grass
A cruciferous plant, Cochlearia officinalis, used for medicinal purposes especially against scurvy (OED 1597).

spirit of scurvy-grass
An oil distilled from the plant and used for medicinal purposes (OED 1676).

Bathing in the sea was considered to have certain therapeutic effects. Hydrotherapy.

sealed in a blanket
Dead and buried on  the battlefield wrapped in a blanket. (U.S. military 20th cen.).

seat of ease
A lavatory.

secondary resection
A second surgical operation at or near the same site as the original surgery in order to complete or correct the results of the first surgery. Before antibiotics, secondary resection was often necessary especially with amputations.

sedative salt
Old name, sal sedativum, for boracic acid (OED 1702).

1. Penniless
2. Exhausted (Grose)

Seidlitz powder
The name of a village in Bohemia, where there is a spring impregnated with magnesium sulphate and carbonic acid. A dose consisting of two powders, one of tartaric acid and the other of a mixture of potassium tartrate and sodium bicarbonate, which are to be dissolved separately, and the solutions mixed and drunk during effervescence (OED 1784.) Also, Seidlitz salt, magnesium sulphate; and Seidlitz water, an artificial water of the same composition as the water of the Seidlitz spring.

senile dementia
Alzheimer's disease or a similar condition.

A laxative.

sensu stricto
In the strict sense.

A poisoned state caused by the absorption of pathogenic microorganisms and their products into the bloodstream, usually through infection of a wound. Sir Joseph Lister (1827-1912), British surgeon, was the founder of antiseptic medicine and a pioneer in preventive medicine. His principle - that bacteria must never gain entry into a surgical wound - remains the basis of surgery today. His work, in the 1860s, took time to catch on - blood-stained frock coats were considered suitable operating room attire as late as the 1870s, and surgeons operated without masks or head coverings as late as the 1890s (OED 1858).

Pockets of pus that are a symptom of sepsis.

A morbid affection occurring as a result of a previous disease.

The word "sergeant" was prefixed to certain designations of office-by-appointment to the Royal Household, going back to the feudal orders established by William the Conqueror; in this case, the official dentist to the Royal Family.

A general term for spreading skin diseases; such as ringworm (OED 1398).

A form of chastity belt.

1.Watery animal fluid, normal or morbid; spec. blood-serum, the greenish yellow liquid which separates from the clot when blood coagulates (OED 1672).
2. The blood serum of an animal used as a therapeutic or diagnostic agent
(OED 1895).

A thread, piece of tape, or the like, drawn through a fold of skin so as to maintain an issue or opening for discharges, or drawn through a sinus or cavity to keep this from healing up (OED c1400).

seton needle
A needle used for passing a seton through the skin (OED 1672).

seventh son
Considered to have the power to cure ague, scrofula among other diseases (19th cent. England).

Old term for the fever and trembling associated with malaria.

An venereal sore (U.S. 19th cent.).

Legs. A tall man might be nicknamed "Longshanks".

shaved head
Possibly done to a patient so that all their energy would be directed to recovering from their illness. Frequently, done to women who are suffering from a disease with a high fever.

shaved head, clapped on leeches 2xday, bleed, dose
Standard therapeutic regime. ‘Heroic medicine’.

shell shock
The term used for soldiers in World War, 1914-1918 who were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Many soldiers suffering from this disorder were accused of malingering and cowardice.

Herpes zoster, an eruptive disease often extending round the middle of the body like a belt, usually accompanied by violent neuralgic pain (OED 1398).

ship's barber
A surgeon's assistant aboard naval ships, name harks back to the days of the barber-surgeon who bled and sutured patients, did amputations, cut hair and beards.

ship's butcher
Perhaps stationed in sick bay during action as a pair of extra hands and an individual who would not be put off or sickened by blood and gore.

shitting through the teeth
Vomiting (U.S. 19th cent.).

short commons
Meagre rations. The term comes from the name for food served to students at Cambridge University.

shotten herring
A short, thin person (U.S. 19th cent.).

A wooden window cover, which could be used to carry an invalid.

From Latin for a hiss or whistle. Lanennec, the inventor of the stethoscope, to describe a sound in the lungs.

sick and hurt board
The body that administered the medical department of the Royal Navy. Its commissioners were appointed by the Admiralty.

sick bay, sick berth
The part of the ship where sick men were kept and treated.

sick headache
Common name for a migraine headache. A headache so severe that it often causes nausea.

sick leave
Leave from duty while the patient recuperates from illness or wounds.

sick ticket
A docket provided by a surgeon to certify that a patient may be absent on sick leave.

A list of patients being treated in a ship's sick bay.

Arc-welder's disease. A chronic lung condition caused by the inhalation of iron dust.

sidledy wry
Having a crooked back. Scoliosis (U.S. 19th cent.).


A lung disease caused by the inhalation by dust (OED 1881).

silk stockings 
A patient wearing silk stockings suffering a wound will have less foreign matter driven into the wound than if wearing stockings made of some other fabric (M&C 326).

similia similibus (BATM 89)
From the Latin similia similibus curantur, meaning "let like be cured by like". The saying was coined by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician who was the founder of the therapeutic practice of homeopathy.

An idiot (Grose).

1. A plant having medicinal properties.
2. To be an idiot

An idiot

A literary term for muscles (HMSS 7, 76).

single peeper
A person who has only one eye.

Sunstroke (TH 189).

A contemporary term for masturbating  (HMSS 146).

Something like a mud-bath, used for therapeutic purposes (HMSS 225).

A cloth support for an injured arm.

Tea, water gruel, any non alcoholic beverage taken medicinally (Grose).

To shed skin (TMC 340).

sluggish liver
A general feeling of unwellness with poor digestion, constipation, nausea and abdominal pain (OED 1910).

An acute contagious disease - also known as variola - characterised by pox or pustules on the skin.

smart money
Money paid to sailors and soldiers by the Crown for the loss of a limb or other disability sustained in service (Grose).

A nose (Grose).

smelling salts
A vial of a sharp smelling chemical like ammonia which was held under the nose to revive a person who had fainted.

A small amount.

An arm (Grose).

smock faced
Having an attractive face (Grose).

Snow White
A nurse in the United States army dressed in her uniform (U.S. 20th cent.).

A head cold with a runny nose (Grose).

soldier's disease
Typhoid fever due to its prevlence in armies.

soldier's heart 
A form of heart disease caused by extreme physical or mental strain. It is characterized by shortness of breath, heart palpitations, depression and irritability. It was the term used by survivors and physicians after the American Civil War, 1861-1865 to describe shell shock.  Shell shock was coined during World War I, 1914-1918 (OED 1898). The term now used is post traumatic stress disorder.

soldier's mawnn'd
A fake sore or wound (OED 1699).

solis deprivatio 
Lack of sun. It could be a treatment, to keep the patient out of the sun; and it could be a pallor caused by not getting enough sun (PC 84) .

sopor, coma, lethargy, carus 
These are the stages of unconsciousness - a deep, unnatural state of sleep; a state of unnatural, heavy, prolonged sleep, with complete unconsciousness and slow, stertorous breathing, frequently ending in death; morbid drowsiness or prolonged and unnatural sleep; extreme insensibility, especially the 4th degree of insensibility (TH 116).

Sleep inducing.

Brownish crusts that collect on the lips and teeth of fever patients.

An instrument for exploring body cavities and for introducing fluids into the body e.g., electrical sounds and cold sounds. Used by George Beard, (1839-1883), American neurologist in his treatment of neurasthenia, a disease he named in 1869.

sovereign remedy 
An efficacious treatment.

sow child
A girl (Grose).

Spanish fly 
Popular term for cantharides, an insect commonly found in Spain, used as an aphrodisiac as far back as the ancient Greeks. Used in English medicines as a diuretic since the 16th century.

Spanish Gout
Syphillis (Grose)

Spanish Influenza 
A general name for epidemic influenza.

Large (Grose).

sparrow mouthed
Large mouth (Grose).

A stiff wire, inserted in catheters or other tubular instruments to maintain their shape and prevent clogging).

spica bandage 
A kind of bandage wrapped back and forth with spiral overlapping around parts of a joint (YA 123).

spider shanked
Thin legs (Grose).

Temperament or disposition (HMSS 244).

spirits of camphor 
Used medicinally as a stimulant, a diaphoretic, or as an inhalant (TH 111).

spirits of salt 
Diluted hydrochloric acid (HMSS 100).

spirits of wine 
Alcohol (NC 131).

splanchnic teratoma 
A tumour in the viscera or intestines (RM 31).

splay feet 
A deformity of broad, flat feet, especially those turned outward.

An abdominal organ which forms lymphocytes, produces antibodies, helps to destroy worn-out blood cells and filters bacteria and foreign particles from the blood. It was formerly regarded as the seat of certain emotions, including malice, spite, bad temper, melancholy, low spirits, whim or caprice.

splint, splinted, splinting 
A splint is a rigid support for restricting movement of an injured part, such as a broken bone.

splinter wound 
Wounds caused by sharp splinters of wood, especially during battle.

spongy gums
A symptom of scurvy (DI 271).

spontaneous combustion
The notion that the human body can burst into flames without any obvious reason. This was a widespread notion in the 19th century that a lot of novelists used to good effect. However, investigation has proven it to be a myth. In every case investigated an external heat source has been found. Moreover, it seems implausible given that the human body is so predominately made up of water.

spoon hand
Right hand (Grose).

Eating rich foods was believed to cause skin eruptions (PC 39).

An injury to a joint, characterized by swelling and temporary disability.

A chronic malabsorption disorder, causing indigestion, muscle weakness and anemia. From the Dutch word for sprout or spurt. First described in 1669.


A fat person because of their likeness to an overstuffed couch (Grose).

squeeze crab
A sour looking, shriveled, short person (Grose).

The root of the sea-onion, Scilla maritima. It had been used as an expectorant and diuretic from classical times (M&C 348).

the squitters
Popular term for diarrhea (U.K. 19th-early 20th cent.) (Worth p. 205).

St Ignatius beans 
A bitter tasting medicine, used as a heart stimulant (IM 109).

A period or stage or interval, especially in the course of an illness (COM 225).

A general term for iron used medicinally. A tincture of perchloride of iron was commonly known as "steel drops".

stertor, stertorous 
Laboured or noisy breathing. Now diagnosed as sleep apnea.

stewed quaker
Heated rum with a piece of butter melted into it. Used in the United States as a cold remedy (Grose).

stibium or stimmy
Black sulfide of antimony used by ancient Greeks and Romans as a cosmetic.

stinking gladwin 
Spurgewort (Iris foetidissima), used medicinally for stomach-cramps, as an anti-spasmodic generally, and as an infusion helps hysterical and nervous complaint (TMC 190).

stomach pump 
A suction device for removing the contents of the stomach through a tube inserted down the throat (FSW 250).

stomach worm
Hunger pangs (Grose).

1. A British measure of weight, amounting to 14 pounds. It was typically used as a measure of a person's weight.
2. A concretion of minerals and salts formed in hollow bodily organs, such as the kidney or the gall bladder. Cutting for the stone. Lithotomy. Good surgeons could do it in 30 seconds which was good because no anesthetic except alcohol was used to dull the pain.



To stretch out the limbs; to walk in a flourishing manner.U.S. colloq & dial. (OED 1792).

Constriction of a bodily organ or duct so as to stop circulation or the passage of fluids.

A disease of the urinary organs characterized by slow and painful emission of urine.

strong fives 
Another invented disease of Dr Tufts. See marthambles. Apparently meant as a form of severe colic, caused by overeating and drinking and cured by a clyster.

strong gripes
Intermittent spasmodic pain in the bowels, usually meaning colic pains (TMC 140).

Pitted with smallpox scars. Looks like the devil ran over his face with horse nailed (stubs) shoes (Grose).

1.The part of a limb which remains after a larger part is removed, especially by amputation.
2. A leg. To stir one’s stump = walk briskly (Grose).

A state of unconsciousness.

An agent that constricts the blood vessels, used to stop bleeding in a minor wound.

subsultus tendinum 
Irregular jerking of the tendons.


sudor insignis
Exemplary sweating.

Spread or flooded.

sugar of iron; sugar of lead
Compound resembling sugar in form or taste made of finely ground mineral mixed with vinegar or wine. Used as a medicine (OED 1661).

sui gen 
Having a distinct character of its own. Properly sui generis.

sulfa powder / sulfa tablets
In 1941, sulfanilamide was introduced to the battlefield to prevent wound infection. The powder was included in a bandaging kit and was sprinkled on the wound. Six to eight tablets were also swallowed with water (U.S. 20th cent.).

A chemical element used for the treatment of skin diseases.

sulphureous ether 
A volatile, inflammable fluid obtained by the distillation of alcohol with sulfuric acid. Its anesthetic properties were noted by Faraday in 1818 and it was first used in surgery in 1842.

Inflammation of skin from overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun; sunburn causes fluid loss and can lead to dehydration, in addition to swelling, blistering, peeling, and cracking of the skin. In severe cases, the victim may experience fever, nausea, chills, dizziness, rapid breathing, shock, and loss of consciousness.

Overheating of the body due to prolonged exposure to great heat without protective measures such as shade, ventilation, increased fluid intake, and other cooling measures. It causes an increase in body temperature that can lead to collapse and death.

superficial circulation 
Circulation in the capillaries, the smallest of the blood vessels, closest to the skin.

suppression of the menses
The cessation of menstruation during pregnancy.

Forming or discharging pus; festering.

suprapubic cystotomy 
An incision into the bladder to provide an opening.


  1. Originally barber surgeon because barbers who cut hair and shaved men also amputated diseased and damaged limbs. Not considered gentlemen because they worked with their hands. Physicians diagnosed and prescribed; they did not ‘work’ with their hands.

Generally, a medical practitioner who treats patients by surgery rather than by other healing techniques. A surgeon was seen at the time to be less skilled than a physician. A naval surgeon on board ship performed the duties of physician, surgeon and apothecary. Until 1805, he ranked with a Master in pay but lower in status. After the reforms of that year, he was a Warrant Officer of wardroom rank. Surgeons were not seen as gentlemen since they worked with their hands. Surgeons only came into their own at the end of the nineteenth century once anesthetic was available and surgical procedures no longer had to be done as quickly as possible. More complicated procedures than amputation of a diseased or damaged limb could be attempted with some hope of success.

surgeon's chest 
A chest of instruments and drugs. Some drugs were supplied free of charge from 1796 and all from 1804.

surgeon's hall 
Surgeon's Hall was completed in 1752 for the Company of Surgeons and abandoned in 1796 in favor of a house in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London - a move that led to the dissolution of the Company and the foundation of the Royal College of Surgeons.

surgeon's mate 
Assistant to the surgeon. After 1805, he was called an assistant surgeon.

surgeon's share 
The share due to a surgeon when the value of a prize was allocated to the crew.

The chief medical officer of a regiment, primarily an administrator.

A thread used to stitch together two body surfaces.

A small piece of cloth used to clean a wound or apply medication.

A treatment which caused a patient to sweat.

sweating sickness
A febrile disease characterized by profuse sweating, of which highly and rapidly fatal epidemics occurred in England in the 15th and 16th centuries.

squinting, cross-eyed. Sailors considered such persons bad luck on shipboard (OED 1781).

Sydney pox
Syphilis. Possibly a form of syphilis peculiar to the port of Sydney in New South Wales.

symptom book
Medical handbook used on New England sailing ships which described the symptoms and treatments of illnesses. (U.S. 19th cent. OED).

A fainting attack.

syphilis, syphilitic
A sexually transmitted disease, the most common with gonorrhea before HIV-AIDS emerged in the late 1980’s.

Syrup of Figs
A proprietary, all purpose medicine that was available under several brand names, 19th-early 20th cent. U.K. "I used to like th Syrup of Figs - it was sweet. I wouldn't take the others. Caster oil and epsom salts. They were too bitter (Pain and Pleasure, p.19).