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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.


walking cases
Patients who are not so ill that they cannot walk (xOED).

blinking, bleary eyed, sore eyes. U.S. dial. 19th cent. (OED 1746).

Ward's pill, Ward's drop
Joshua Ward (1685-1761) was famous for his pills which were a mixture of antimony and balsam and were touted as cures for many ailments. His drops were made of the same mixture, with wine added.

war nerves
The nervous effect of war on people both civilian and military (U.S. 20th cent.).

water brash
A belch of stomach acid.

water cure
The water cure was the invention of Vincent Preissnitz of Silesia, who recovered from injuries sustained in an accident by a regimen of applying wet compresses and drinking amounts of water. Hydrotherapy.

water scriger
A physician who diagnoses solely from inspecting a patient’s urine (Grose).

weaning brash
A slight attack of illness in a child who is being weaned onto solid food (OED 1785). Brash, in general, is a sudden, mild feeling of being unwell.

wedding, Irish as in “You’ve been to an Irish Wedding”
Say to someone who has a black eye. (U.S. 19th cent.).

Welch fiddle
Derogatory term for some sort of skin disease which caused itching (U.S. 19th cent.).

A person believed to be able to assume the form of a bear. Other animals were wolves, jaguars, asses or animals in general (OED 1883).

Wet scab
Eczema, a skin disease (OED 1400).

Ridges or marks raised on the skin, as from a flogging. Also spelled "weals".

A relaxation of the scrotum (U.S. 19th cent.).

whipping off of a leg
Amputation of a leg.

white gum
Small, hard white specks on face, neck and chest which afflicts infants during teething (OED 1789).

white leg
Also called milk leg and now called phlegmasia. A rare but potentially limb-threatening vascular emergency caused by thrombosis of the deep and superficial veins of the leg. Because the leg is white and hard and afflicting new mothers, it was thought to be caused by breast milk falling to the leg.

white swelling
A pregnant belly (U.S. 19th cent.).

A inflammation or sore on the tip of the finger or thumb due to infection, usually in a small wound.

whore's bath
A sponge bath using a soldier's helmet (U.S. military 20th cent.).

A dry and liquid measure the standards of which originated in the city of Winchester, a city in Hampshire. (OED 1550) Winchester bottle was a large cylindrical bottle with a narrow neck for transporting chemicals (OED 1862).

A sail positioned in such a way that it directed air to the sick berth of a naval ship.

winter cough

A medicine-man possessing supernatural powers.

wits astray
Mentally defective.

Shriveled or dried up.

workhouse system
A system of charity in England begun by the Poor Law Act of 1834 and finally repealed in 1929. Prior to this, the medieval practice had prevailed whereby the destitute were hounded from place to place by parish authorities, never allowed to settle anywhere for fear of causing expense to the parish and lawfully beaten to death. The new act provided room and board to destitute individuals and families in return for menial labour. However, the system soon corrupted into a byword for cruelty and inhumanity towards the poor. It treated poverty as a crime and became prisons for the poor. Although admission was voluntary, once an inmate, a person could not leave without permission. Families were separated. Wives from husbands, children from their parents into separate, locked dormitories and airing yards which were surrounded by high walls. Some never saw each other again. The living conditions were the bare minimum and contagious diseases swept the dormitories killing many. People chose to die of starvation or exposure rather than go into the workhouse. After 1929 many workhouses were converted into hospitals which contributed to the fear of hospitals and the refusal to go into one which lingered among the older people well into the 20th cent. The novel, "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens described the workhouse system in an effort to expose its inhumanity.  

Wool-sorter’s disease
Also called Anthrax. An ancient bacterial infection which usually affects hoofed animals but can be transmitted to humans. Bacteria identified by Robert Koch and Pasteur.

Treated for internal parasites.

Internal parasites.

An injury to a limb, caused by twisting.