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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.


Wasting disease from Latin word meaning to waste or melt.

tabes dorsalis
Painful back disorder caused by syphilis.

tabes of the inferior members
Wasting of the legs.

Tahiti pox

taken bad; taken ill
Sick (U.K. 19th-20th cent.).

take the waters
To bathe and drink in healing waters, as in a spa resort.

An infusion of pine resin in water, used for chronic catarrhal and urinary affections, for pulmonary affections and as a wash for diseases of the scalp and other chronic affections of the skin. It was originally a native American treatment.

tartar emetic
Made from antimony and potassium tartarate, it tasted awful and was used to cause vomiting.

teeth filed
When a little girl's second incisors came in with scalloped edges, it used to be the practice to file the scallops off and make the teeth even, apparently for the looks of it.

teething brash
A slight attack of sickness to an infant who is teething (1785). Brash, in general, means a slight attack of feeling unwell.

tender gums
A symptom of scurvy.

Straining, especially long-continued and ineffective and painful straining, at stool or in urination.

A tumour.

Occurring every other day (i.e. every third day, counting both days of occurrence). The term is usually applied to fever or a disease causing it, especially any of certain forms of malaria; a tertian fever or disease.

Paralysis of arms and legs; former usage, from the Greek, for what is now called, from the Latin, quadriplegia.

A general term for any pustular eruption of the skin such as eczema, herpes, petigo, and ringworm. other terms are crusted or pustular or running tetter is impetigo;eating tetter is lupus; honeycomb tetter is favus; humid or moist tetter is eczema; milky tetter is milk-blotch; scaly tetter is psoriasis (OED 700).

thousand mile stare / thousand yard stare
The unseeing stare of a combat exhausted soldier indicating post-traumatic stress disorder. Popularized by a portrait of a marine by war artist, Tom Lea. "Two thousand yard stare" published in LIFE magazine in 1944 (U.S. 1944).

A disease, chiefly of infants, characterized by white vesicular specks on the inside of the mouth and throat and on the lips and tongue, caused by a parasitic fungus.

timber toe
A person with a wooden leg (U.S. 19th cent.).

A solution, usually in alcohol, of a substance used in medicine.

tobacco heart
A heart functionally disordered by excessive use of tobacco, characterized by a rapid and irregular pulse (OED 1884).

toe injection
A kick in the backside to cure someone of malingering (U.S. 19th cent. OED).

Both meanings refer to the skin lesions, typical of both diseases.
1.The bubonic plague.
2.Venereal disease. Eg. She tipped him the token. (U.S. 19th cent.).

Abbreviation of Balsam of Tolu from the bark of the Tolu tree which grows in South America. Balsam of Tolu was used in England as early as 1673. Several proprietary medicine companies sold products they called "Tolu".

tom of bedlam
A person faking mental illness.

Often a proprietary medicine sold by drugstores, mail order and door to door salesmen. Often had a alcohol base which made them addictive. Before ingredients had to be disclosed on the label, customers of these tonics didn’t know about the alcohol, morphine or cocaine content. They did not know about the addictive properties.

Acute wringing pains in the abdomen; colic or gripes.

A state of lethargy.

An injury caused by twisting, as in a sprain.

Rope fibres, used to clean various things, including children's bottoms.

The former term for eclampsia.

A system of organs, glands and other tissues which has a particular function.

trench foot
A painful condition of the feet caused by prolonged immersion in cold water or mud, marked by swelling, blistering, and some degree of necrosis. Common among soldiers in World War 1914-1918 because they spent long periods in waterlogged trenches.

trench mouth
A form of gingivitis, gum disease caused by lack of oral hygiene. Common among soldiers in World War 1914-1918 who spent long periods in trenches unable to brush their teeth (OED 1918).

trepan, trephine, trepanning, trephining
A trepan or trephine is a surgical instrument having circular, sawlike edges, used to cut out disks of bone, usually from the skull.

The state of being unable to move the mouth because the jaw muscles are contracted, especially as a result of tetanus.

To grind into small particles or a powder, especially for mercury to be used in an ointment to treat venereal diseases.

tropical sprue
Now called Celiac Disease or Gee-Harter’s Disease. Also called Infantile Sprue.

A surgical appliance serving for support in cases of rupture, etc., now usually consisting of a pad with a belt or spring to produce equable pressure on the part. Trussmaker. A person who makes trusses (OED 1543).




A funnel (DI 218).


Turkey rhubarb
A plant, also known as Chinese Rhubarb, the root of which is used to detoxify the liver, and also has antibiotic, anti-microbial, and anti-tumor properties.

turpentine enema
An enema made from turpentine.

The root of a tropical Asiatic and Australian vine, used as a purgative.

twilight sleep
A state of light sleep induced by the administration of morphine and scopolamine (hyoscine), esp. to lessen the pains of childbirth. A translation from German " dämmerschlaf" (OED 1905).

Another term for edema, the accumulation of water in the tissues due to kidney failure. One of three kinds of edema, the Greeks recognized.