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.



baby's public house
The breast (U.K. 19th century).

bachelor's baby
An baby born to an unwed mother (U.K. 19th century).

back door trot
Diarrhoea (U.K. 1870-1879) (OED 1789).

taken bad; taken ill
Sick (U.K. 19th-20th cent.) (OED 1716).

bad presentation 
Where the foetus is not in a position for an easy birth.

bad teeth
Decayed teeth.

bag, baggie
Stomach (Scotland) (OED 1786).

bag of bones
Very skinny person (OED 1838).

Bronchitis (U.K. 1890-1899).

to bake
To rest (U.K. 1790-1850).

Exhausted (U.K. 1790-1850).

baker's knees
Bowed legs which touched when the person walked like a baker kneading bread (OED 1871).

baker's itch
An skin irritation of the hands, commonly an occupational disease of bakers (OED no date).

bald rib
Thin, bony person (Partridge 1620) (OED 1598).

A scoop for extracting mini-balls which were round bullets from wounds.

ballocks; bollocks
Testicles. Very old word. Standard English until 1840 then vulgar (Partridge) (OED 1350).

Thin, boney (OED 1612).

A healing ointment (OED 1220).

balm o’ Gilead
1. The North American poplar tree.
2. Antiseptic lotion for cuts made from its sap and drinking alcohol. Sugar was added and it was used as a cold/cough remedy. It was soaked into cloth and put around the neck as a cold/cough remedy. (Gould) (OED 1671).

1. A nap (U.K. 1840) (OED 1841).
2. An idiot OED 1851).

bandage rolling
Long strips of cotton or linen used for bandages. Packed as thick rolls into medical kits. Women's groups did this as war work until World War I, 1914-1918.

Hungry (U.K. 1812).

A gummy preparation for fixing the hair (OED 1846).

Injured (OED 1568).

1. A killer, a cause of death (OED 800).
2. A poison, especially poisonous plant (OED 1398).
3. A disease of sheep, "the rot" (OED 1859).

Any poisonous plant but sometimes specifically nightshade (OED 1847).

bangle eared
Large, dangling ears like a spaniel. (OED 1567)

to bant
To follow a weight reducing diet (OED 1865).

A method of reducing corpulence by avoiding fat, starch, and sugar in food, based on a pamphlet by William Banting published in 1864 (OED 1864).

A child born to an unwed mother. Said to be conceived on a bench rather than in a marriage bed (U.K. 16th - 17th century) (OED 1593).

barbados leg
A form of elephantiasis incident to hot climates, producing an induration and darkening of the skin, chiefly on the leg (OED 1849).

barber's itch
An infectious disease caused by an unclean shaving brush. It attacks the cheeks and sometimes the eyebrows, as small sores at the base of each hair shaft, causing the hair to fall out and leaving a brown scab. Prevalent when men went to a barber to be shaved and rare now that most use their own razor at home (OED 1890).

barge arse
A person with large buttocks (U.K. 1870-1910).

1. The dried bark of any of several trees of the genus Cinchona containing alkaloids - as quinine, cinchonine, quinidine, and cinchonidine - and being used especially formerly as a specific in malaria, an antipyretic in other fevers, and a tonic and stomachic - called also cinchona bark, Jesuits' bark, Peruvian bark or Countess' powder (after the Countess of Cinchon). The 'tonic' in gin & tonic is quinine and was popular in the East Indies because it reduced fever in general. It still does, and with the gin you don't mind the fever (OED 1704).
2. A rough cough (OED 1871).
3. To scrape the skin.

Scraped skin (OED 1611).

Skin which is encrusted with dirt. (OED 1819)

A drink made from an infusion of barley, often given to invalids (OED 1320).

1. The lap or bosom (OED 950).
2. The foam head on a liquid made with malt OED 1000).

Barnwell ague
One of innumerable euphemisms for syphilis. Others are French pox, English Pox, Spanish pox depending on what country or place you weren't from (U.K. 1670-1850).

like Barney's bull
Extremely tired  (U.K. 19th - 20th century) (OED 1908).

barrel chested
A symptom of long standing cases of emphysema (OED 1907).

barrel fever
Disease brought on by excessive drinking of alcohol (OED no date).

barrel of flour
Children in Maine, U.S. were told by their parents that ‘they came in a barrel of flour’ when asked where they came from.

The common name for St Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded in 1123 in Smithfield, London.

Basra (or Basrah) method, Andersen’s
William Eton, an Englishman and former consul in Basra, wrote a letter to a doctor in Petersburg describing how an Arabian soldier's broken leg was treated with plaster of Paris. The letter was written in 1798 and appeared in some European medical papers, but many years passed before plaster of Paris was applied on a large scale in Europe. The technique consisted of pouring plaster pulp into a mold in which the broken leg was laid in the correct position.

Batavia pox
One of innumerable euphemisms for syphilis. Others are French pox, English Pox, Spanish pox depending on what country you weren't from.

bay fever
Fake illness of convicts who wanted to avoid being sent to Botany Bay, the British penal colony in Australia (U.K. 1810-1860).

bay window
A large belly either through pregnancy or obesity (U.K. 19th - 20th century).

beal, bealing
1. A boil.
2. To fester with infection. (Standard in Scotland) (OED 1611).

On one's beam ends
Exhausted (U.K. 1830-1880).

A person skilled in the treatment of animals. A leech was a person skilled in the treatment of people (British, Medieval).

Exhausted (OED 1830)

beat elbow, beat hand, beat knee
Repetitive strain injuries particular to miners caused by the jarring and friction of the pick against the rock (OED 1905).

Put to bed with a mattock; tucked up with a spade
Dead and buried (U.K. 18th - 19th century). 

Put to bed with a shovel
Dead and buried (U.K. 19th-20th cent.).

Put to bed with a pickaxe and shovel
Dead and buried (U.K. 1830).

1. A lunatic asylum. The original bedlam was the Bethlehem ward at the Hospital of St Mary in London, England which housed psychiatric patients (OED 1528).
2. A lunatic (U.K. late 18th - 20th century).

Like Bedlam
Confused (U.K. late 18th - 20th century).

bed patient
A patient in a sanatorium who is not permitted to get out of bed even for any reason because the level of tuberculoses bacteria in their lungs is too high. Total bed rest.

bedpan commando
Platoon medic in United States army (U.S. 20th century).

beefy; beefiness
Thick, solid body type (U.K. 1859).

beer bottle
A stout, red faced person (U.K. 1909).

An alkaloid drug obtained from the deadly nightshade plant, used as a sedative, a stimulant and a antispasmodic (OED 1597).

bell bastard
A child born of an unwed mother in the Western England (U.K. 19th century).

The lungs (OED 1614).

belly band
Cholera (U.K. military, 1915).

belly paunch
A glutton (U.K. 16th cent.).

belly plea; plead the belly
Pregnant women convicted of capital crimes could not be executed. Therefore, female prisoners got pregnant or claimed to be pregnant hoping for a reprieve. Some prisoners had their sentences changed to "transportation" to Australia for life which meant indentured servitude for some years up to life and exile for life. Others particularly murderers, were executed after the birth of their child (U.K. 18th - early 19th century).

benign prostration
In a temporary state of exhaustion and inability to cope.

benign tumour
A tumour not threatening to life or health, not malignant (OED 1743).

A gum resin containing benzoic acid, used as an expectorant, styptic and antiseptic. It was marketed as Friar’s Balsam (OED 1558).

bereavement lurk
A con in which a person pretends to be shattered both financially and emotionally by the loss of close relative for the purpose of begging (U.K. 1875).

The system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, finger-prints, etc., invented by Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), French criminologist (1892). It was used extensively in France. The skull measurements as a way of individual identification was shortly superceded by photography. Fingerprinting however has retained its usefulness.

A plant, whose leaves and nut are chewed by the people of south and southeastern Asia, as a digestive stimulant and narcotic. Very messy, it coats the teeth and spittle with red dye. Research has found it to be a carcinogenic, the cause of various mouth cancers.

A hard mass formed in the stomachs of grazing animals, thought to be an antidote for poisons.

A narcotic drug produced from cannabis.

Round shouldered or hump backed (U.S. 19th cent.).

A fluid secreted by the liver and stored in the gall bladder.

bilious; bilious attack
1. Resulting from a disorder relating to excessive secretion of bile.
2. Irritable.

bilious facies
The facial appearance of someone suffering from liver dysfunction.

Causes constipation (OED 1566).

A small slender surgical knife with a straight or curved blade and a very sharp point.

Name of pseudo medicinal tonic made by several manufacturers to settle the stomach. Called bitters because of the taste. Now bottled as flavourings for alcoholic drinks.

black and yellow (The devil's livery)
The colour black traditionally denoted death and yellow of quarantine; called the devil's livery. Livery was the uniform of a servant.

black dog

black draught
A liquid purgative consisting of an infusion of senna with sulfate of magnesia and extract of liquorice.

black lung
Affliction of coal miners where the black coal dust they have been breathing in has setting and solidified in their lungs until they can no longer breathe.

black vomit
Yellow fever.

blanket fever
A term among lumberjacks for wanting to stay in a warm bed on cold mornings (U.S. 19th century).

A person suffering from hemophilia, a hereditary disease that makes the blood unable to clot. Sufferers can bleed to death from small injuries.

bleeding, blooding, blood-letting
The therapeutic removal of blood - also called a phlebotomy, literally to cut open a vein. It was used until the end of the 19th century as a therapy for almost every affliction but primary to reduce fever and agitation.  It is now used in treatment of polycythemia, which is an excess of red blood cells.

From 1805, a term for gonorrhea, referring to the discharge of mucus. No longer used.

A form of treatment in which a blister is caused to form on the skin, as a counter-irritant for disorders such as pneumonia. Cantharides and cups was often used for this purpose.

blister plaster
Mustard plaster as a remedy for aching joints, congested chests, croup. Their efficacy is the heat caused by the strength of the mustard. Sharp mustards could blister the skin.

bloody flux
Dysentery, a disease in which the flux or discharge from the bowels has a mixture of blood; diarrhea with blood in it.

blue boar
A sore on the skin caused by venereal disease (U.K. 18th - 19th century). See blue ointment.

blue devils
Depression (U.K. 1790-1850).

blue draught
A standard liquid medicine, presumably containing a compound of mercury.

See through blue glasses
To have a a depressed point of view (U.K. 1931).

blue jack
Cholera, due to the colour of the skin caused by oxygen deprivation. Yellow Jack was a common term for yellow fever because of the jaundiced skin (U.K. military 1909).

blue ointment
A treatment for syphilis, composed of metallic mercury compounded into lard.

blue pill
A mercury based pill, used as a treatment for syphilis and also as a laxative (U.K. 1887).

blue teeth
Discoloration of the teeth due to malnutrition.

blue unction
A blue coloured ointment used to kill body lice (U.K. military 1915)

the blues
1. depression (U.K. 1807).
2. delirium tremors caused by alcohol deprivation in alcoholics. Less commonly used (U.K. 1850).

In good health (U.K. 1812).

Having diarrhea especially in a child (U.K. 1920).

A person who disinterred corpses from cemeteries by night to sell to medical students for dissection (OED 1832). Also called body-snatchers, all-night-men.

body louse
A louse of the subspecies, pediculus humanus humanus, who infest human bodies and clothing with poor hygiene and transmit diseases such as typhus-louse borne. (OED 1545).Also, called greybacks. Head lice are another subspecies.

bollocks; ballocks
Testicles. Very old word. Standard English until 1840 then vulgar) (Partridge).

1. A round mass of tissue, a tumour.
2. A large pill.
3. An apothecary (late 18th - 19th century).

Bombay oyster
A glass of milk with a double dose of caster oil in it used as a tonic (U.K. military 19th - 20th century).


bone ache
Venereal disease (U.K. 16th - 17th century).

bone breaker
A disease causing high fever and delirium (U.K. 19th-20th century).

bone house
The human body (U.K. 1800).

A surgical bone file.

bone setter
A surgeon.

A surgeon, abbreviation of bone setter.

A rumbling or gurgling noise produced by wind in the bowels. The current term is borborygmus and plural borborygmi.

boss backed

Spectacles (U.K. 1870-1910).

boss eye; boss eyed
1. Short sighted (U.K. 1887).
2. An eye with a squint (U.K. 1880).
3. An injured eye (U.K. 1880).

1. A germ from New Zealand bot-fly that burrows under skin.
2. A tuberculosis patient (U.K. 1929).

Botany Bay liver
Possibly cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is a malnutrition disorder prevalent in alcoholics because they don’t eat well. If they eat well, they don’t get cirrhosis no matter how much they drink.

bottle boy
Apothecary's or physician's assistant (U.K. 1855).

bottle nose
A large nose (U.K. 19th - 20th century).

Belly ache (U.K. 1770).

A baby's buttocks (U.K. 19th - 20th century).

bound feet
The practice of binding the feet of wealthy Chinese women began in the 9th century BCE, apparently to imitate an imperial concubine who was required to dance with her feet bound. The practice would cause the soles of feet to bend in extreme concavity.Tiny feet were considered beautiful and a sign of their status that they did not have to work or even walk very much. It was a common practice until the 20th century.

to box the Jesuit
One of innumerable euphemisms for masturbation.

bowels upset

A medicinal tonic (U.K. 18th -19th century).

Inflammation of the brain and also for other fevers such as typhus which caused delirium and mental changes (OED 1833).

The skull.

brandy bloom
Red, pimpled skin on the face commonly seen as a sign of alcoholism but might also be rosacea, a skin disease (U.K. 1887).

bran faced
Freckled (U.K. 18th -19th century).

1. A slight attack of stomach upset (OED 1785).
2. A sudden nausea, with acid rising into the mouth (OED 1811).

A belching of stomach acid or stomach contents (OED 1811).

A hernia.

bread basket; bread room
The stomach (U.K. 1761) Also porridge bowl, dumpling depot.


In pregnancy, a condition where the baby’s feet or buttocks present first in the birth canal rather than the head. This can cause difficulties for the mother especially if her pelvis is narrow. Mothers who suffered malnutrition as children often have narrow pelvises.

Sulfur used as a medicine.

brimstone and treacle
A laxative; also used as a medicinal tonic for children given in the springtime.

1. Painful swellings of the lymph nodes in the groin, armpits, neck, or elsewhere in the body. A symptom of bubonic plague.
2. A venereal disease.

bubonic plague
An acute infectious febrile disease, also known as ‘the black plague’ or 'the black death' which killed one third of the population of Europe - 25 million people - in the fourteenth century. It is a disease of rodents, mainly rats, but is transmitted to humans by fleas. It is now curable with antibiotics, but can kill rapidly if treatment is not started immediately.

buckle hammed
Crooked legged perhaps from rickets (U.K. 17th century).

bull nurse
Male nurse (U.K. 1840-1900).

to bite on a bullet 
A patient undergoing surgery before anaestheics were available was given something to bite on when the pain became intense. In the military a bullet was sometimes used.

One of the innumerable euphemisms for female genitals.

Inflammation and swelling of the bursa at the base of the big toe, with thickening of the skin (YA 61).

Maternity dressings. Absorbent, disposable sheets that are placed under the mother during the birth (U.K. 20th century and earlier).

To have venereal disease. Said of sailors who caught vd abroad. "He burnt his fingers" (U.K. 16th -.20th century).

Venereal disease (U.K. 1750).

burnt holes in the blanket
Description of hung over eyes from an alcoholic binge.

bursten bellies

butcher’s bill
A count of the dead and wounded after a battle.

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