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.


Surgical removal of an organ or of a growth, such as a tumor. Literally, to cut away, surgically (OED 1425).

Physical or mental blindness (OED 1616).

To make abnormal, or alcohol changes a person's behavior (OED 1849).

Sterile, incapable of conceiving a child (OED 1879).

ablution; abulutions
1. Washing oneself to make clean.
2. Cleansing medicines or chemicals of impurities (OED 1405).
3. Ceremonial cleansing as part of a religious rite (OED 1395).

Abraham, Abram man
A person who pretends to be insane, named for the Abraham Ward at Bedlam Hospital, London (OED 1567).

to shame abram
To pretend to be sick (Grose).

abrase, abrasion
To wear down, smooth, or damage by rubbing or scraping.

Broken off, esp. of a placenta: that has undergone abruption (OED 1654).

An obstetrician (OED 1727).

1. childbirth.
2. general state of pregnancy (OED 1730).

acetic acid
A weak acid usually existing as a clear liquid or glassy solid. Vinegar is a dilute solution of acetic acid. (OED 1788). Also called spirit of wine and sugar of lead.

Clumsy due to being numb with cold (OED 1425).

A genus of plants of the ranunculus family; most are poisonous, such as wolfs bane. It was used as a cardiac and respiratory sedative (OED 1569).

Unyielding, stubborn (OED 1788).

Animal fat, lard (OED 1657).

A greyish white fatty substance, chiefly Margarate of Ammonia, spontaneously generated in dead bodies buried in moist places or submerged in water (OED 1803).

A remedy for high fevers, consisting of pouring into the patient a quantity of water, usually from 50-70ƒF (OED 1652).

The placenta, the membrane in which the fetus is enveloped in the womb. So called, because its extrusion follows that of the infant (OED 1587).

A fungus used a laxative and purgative (OED 1400).

agony wagon
Military ambulance during World War I, 1914-1918 (OED 1914).

A fever with shivering as the main symptom, often malarial (OED 1325).

An auxiliary sail used to channel air into the sick bay of a ship.

Drug addicts when in a dozy, zombie like state.

alba mistura
White mixture. Magnesium Sulfate or Epsom Salts, used as a treatment for constipation.

Ulcer caused by excessive alcohol drinking (OED 1601).

Aleppo button
Boils or skin abscesses, a collection of pus localized deep in the skin, caused by staphylococcus aureas and may be associated with chills and fever; can also be caused by streptococcus. Hidradenitis suppurativa result from local inflammation of the sweat glands and appear in the armpits and groin. Apparently the "Aleppo" version was more serious, caused by staphylococcus, which also can cause a vicious inflammation of the skin that strips the outer skin layers off the body and leaves the under layers exposed, as in severe burns. There is a cutaneous version which usually heals itself, and a visceral form which if untreated, is fatal.

Alexandra limp
Alexandra, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1901-1910), was left with a limp after a bout of rheumatic fever during her third confinement  in 1867. For a few years, it became an affectation among aristocratic women to pretend to limp, presumably, in make her feel less self conscious about her lameness (OED 1869).

An antidote against poisons (OED 1628).

An early name for a physician who treated mental disorders and worked as directors of insane asylums (OED 1854).

allover; alloverish
General feeling of unwellness or soreness all over the body, U.S. 1833 (OED 1861).

 A house founded by private charity, for the reception and support of the (usually aged) poor. Formerly, the house where the alms of a monastery were distributed, and the hospitality of the convent dispensed (OED 1440).

Depression, melancholia (OED 1616).

A person who disinterred corpses from cemeteries by night to sell to medical students for dissection. Also, called body snatchers and body lifters (OED 1861).

A term applied by hom(oe)paths to the ordinary or traditional medical practice, and to a certain extent in common use to distinguish it from homeopathy (OED 1842).

Naval surgeons were paid an allowance out of which they bought instruments. From 1781, it was 62 British pounds.

Dead as in gone aloft (OED 1820).

Baldness, lack of hair (OED 1398).

Partial or total loss of sight arising from disease of the optic nerve, usually without external change in the eye (OED 1657).

1.A tumour or blemish on skin especially in the English county of Essex (OED 1700).
2. A decayed tooth especially in the English counties of Kent and Sussex.

A globular flask of glass or earthenware.

A glass capsule that smelling salts might come in. As in "to snif at my amyl".

Trade-name of a white crystalline powder used as a sedative. Isoamyl ethyl barbituric acid (Amytal) (OED 1926). Eli Lilly and company marketed it in tablet form for human use as a sedative and hypnotic (OED 1930).

A very skinny person (U.K. 19th cent.).

angel bread
A bread used as purgative made from ginger, spurge, flour and oatmeal (OED no date).

A substance used to reduce perspiration (OED 1880).

anomaly of the pulse
An irregular rhythm of the pulse.

1.Loss of appetite (OED 1605).
2. Disorder generally among teenage girls where they perceive themselves to be fat and stop eating. Now seen as a psychiatric disorder.

An agent to depress or suppress sexual desire. The modern term is anaphrodesia (OED 1865).

antimonial wine
An emetic made from antimony potassium tartrate, water and fortified wine. An emetic was intended to make the patient vomit (OED 1605).

A toxic metallic element, used as an emetic (OED 1477).

Anti-inflammatory (OED 1769).

A remedy for scurvy, a nutritional disorder characterized by the lack of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Citrus fruit, fresh meat, pine tea, sauerkraut were all used to prevent or cure scurvy (OED 1696).

Hippocrates used this word for thrush, the small, mouth ulcers in infants (OED 1851).

Sudden impairment of neurological function, especially that resulting from a cerebral hemorrhage; a stroke. A sudden effusion of blood into an organ or tissue. A fit of extreme anger or rage (OED 1386).

Apothecaries’ Hall
The Hall of the Society of Apothecaries, originally established in 1632, destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt in 1672 with an laboratory to manufacture drugs on a large scale (U.K.).

A pharmacist.; a merchant who mixes and sells drugs, hopefully licensed by the Society of Apothecaries. (U.K.) Comes from the Latin term "apotheca" meaning storehouse. In the Middle Ages it came to mean a storehouse for drugs (Wain, p. 23) (OED 1366).

Apollinaris Spring water
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) (OED 1875).

Basking in the sun, perhaps getting heliotherapy,benefit of sunshine and vitamin D (OED 1623).

Literally "royal water", so called because it dissolved gold, the royal metal. A corrosive mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid used as a purgative (OED 1594).

Aqua Tofana
An arsenic solution named after an infamous female poisoners called Toffa, executed in Naples in 1709 (Wain, p.23).

Aqua Vitae
Literally "water of life". It referred to brandy (Wain, p. 23) (OED 1547).

arcus senilis
An opaque circle around the cornea of the eye, as seen in elderly people (OED 1795).

Armenian bole
A red, clayey earth, used as a astringent salve to stop hemorrhaging and prevent ulceration (OED 1621) .

A diet drink using sarsaparilla which was sold at coffee houses in London.

Crutches (U.K. 1820-1910).

arrive at term 
To complete the full nine months of pregnancy.

The foetid gum resin or inspissated juice of a large umbelliferous plant (Ferula asafoetida) of Persia and the East India. It was used as a remedy for hysterical disorders, flatulent colics and as a promoter of the menses (OED 1398).

asafoetida bag
The odor was thought to ward off illness and small bags of it were placed around the necks and under the clothing of small children (U.S.19th cent.).

An affliction of asbestos miners where the asbestos particles they have been breathing in, accumulate and solidify in their lungs until they can no longer breathe (OED 1927).

Presumably, named for the Greco-Roman god of medicine, Aesculapius or Asclepius, son of Apollo and the nymph Coronis and slain by Zeus, who was afraid he would make all men immortal. His chief attribute as a god was a staff with a serpent coiled around it.

Sharpness of temper (OED 1664).

Calmness (OED 1603).

A small, thin, deformed person. From the word anatomy (U.K. 1700) (OED 1600).

Pregnant especially in a unmarried woman (U.K. 1920).

A diagnostic procedure in which the physician listens to sounds of the chest or abdomen, to determine state of the heart or lungs. It was originally performed, before the invention of the stethoscope, by placing the ear directly on the chest. Auscultation was often used with percussion, the art of striking a surface part of the body with short, sharp taps to diagnose the condition of the parts beneath the sound, which was discovered by Leopold Auenbrugger (1722-1809) of Vienna. (OED 1833).

1. Merchandise sold by weight. A corrupt spelling of avoir-de-pois, in early Old French and Anglo-Norman aveir de peis ‘goods of weight.’ (OED 1600). 
2. Weight (U.S. 1883).
3. Obesity (U.K. 1920).

Contact Us!

History of Health and Medicine Room

History of Health & Medicine

C. Barber Mueller History of Health & Medicine Room
Lower Level
Health Sciences Library,
McMaster University
1280 Main St. West HSC-2B
Hamilton, ON
L8S 4K1 

Phone: 905-525-9140 ext. 22928