Skip to main content

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.


unicorn horn 
In ancient and medieval times, it was believed that those who drank from a unicorn's horn would be protected from stomach trouble, epilepsy, and poison. Cups reputedly made of unicorn horn but actually made of rhinoceros horn or narwhal tusk were highly valued in the Middle Ages. Possibly, the horn of a narwhal, a small Arctic whale, The male narwhal has a tooth which develops into a straight spirally twisted tusk. Also called sea-unicorn (THD 65).

undulant fever
Obsolete term for Brucellosis. Also called Mediterranean Fever, Malta Fever, and in cattle, Bang’s Disease.

unknown guest
A parasite, eg a tapeworm.

upas tree
A tree of the nettle order of dicotyledonous flowering plants, related to the fig and also to the hemp, or marijuana, plant. According to legend, falling asleep under a upas tree was fatal. This probably arose from the fact that the latex from the upas tree in Java (Antiaris toxicaria) was used by natives as an arrow poison for hunting.

usual diseases
Venereal diseases.

A delicate term for a chamber pot.