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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.


cachexy or cachexia
A generally weakened condition of the body or mind. Cachexia refers to severe wasting of the body, sallow unhealthy skin and heavy, lusterless eyes as in starvation, end-stage pulmonary tuberculosis, in AIDS, or end-stage cancer.

A covering of paste, gelatin, or other digestible material, enclosing bad-tasting medicine = capsule (OED 1884).

The breeding of a weak race. = dysgenic. The opposite of eugenic (OED 1917).

Disorder of mind; moral depravity; insane morbidity of temper.

cabin fever
Restlessness after being cooped up too long.

A mild tropical fever, with symptoms similar to sunstroke.

Mercurous chloride or protochloride of mercury, Hg2Cl2, much used as a purgative. Was a mercury-based medicine. It came in two forms; blue pills which contained a mixture of mercury, licorice, rose water, powdered rose, honey and sugar. Blue mass was a lump of mercurous chloride that doctors pinched off a piece. Neither method provided for standardized or measured doses. 19th century doctors feared constipation as a root cause of illness and calomel was used to keep the bowels open. Ironically, it was also used to treat dysentery and diarrhea. Calomel or a related compound, tartar emetic, was often given in heroic doses and poisoned the patient. Increased salivation was an immediate symptom (a pint to a quart a day). Mercurial gangrene which was the death of cheek and mouth tissue leading to permanent facial deformities. Mercury loosened teeth. People such as Louisa Alcott died of mercury poisoning. The surgeon general of the union army tried to exclude both compounds from the pharmacopeia and met with strong opposition. Its danger was only acknowledged by the medical profession after the Civil war.

calor, rubor, dolor
Heat, redness and pain. Three of the four definitive characteristics of inflammation, as in a boil. The fourth is 'tumor' which means 'swelling'.

calumba root
The root of an African plant (Jatrorrhiza palmata), used as a mild tonic and cure for stomach ache.

cambodia bole
A type of clay used as a styptic dressing.

The flowers of any of the plants of the genus Anthemis, used to make a pleasant, perhaps soothing tea.

An Old World plant (Lawsonia inermis) of the loosestrife family; also called henna. It was said to reduce perspiration and was used as a perfume.

A whitish crystalline aromatic substance from the wood of the camphor tree, used as a liniment and formerly, as a diaphoretic.

camphorated vinegar
A mixture of powdered camphor and vinegar, sometimes used as a disinfectant.

camp itch
A painful skin disease of undetermined cause involving itching, lesions and inflammation. Treatment involved washing of the skin, clean clothing and soothing ointments.

canker rash
Scarlet fever accompanied by throat ulcerations (U.S. 19th cent.).

A diuretic and urogenital stimulant. Also known as Spanish fly.

canvas shift
A garment made of canvas, similar to a hospital gown.

caoine [keen]
Traditional Irish death song heard at Irish funerals (OED 1707).

A large glass bottle, used to store chemicals in the drug industry.

An Asian plant of the ginger family; its seed is used to flavour medicines and food.

caries of the bone
Osteomyeltis. Infection and inflamation of the bone (1865).

Having caries, especially of the teeth; decayed.

A drug used to expelling gas in the intestinal tract, either flatulence and colic. From Latin word “carere" meaning to comb out wool. Any medicine that would comb out or dilute gross humors into fine ones.

Cassia fistulae used as a laxative. Also known as syrup of senna, made from the pulp of cassia pods. It tints the urine green or brown.

cast iron sweat
Sweating profusely due to nervousness (U.S. 19th cent.).

caster oil
Made from pressing castor beans, tasting very bitter. Used as an allpurpose medicinal tonic especially for children, 19th-early 20th cent. U.K."Epsom Salts or caster oil is what they gave you. Caster oil was very hard to take. They used to put it into milk to lessen the taste but you could still taste it through it. Cod liver oil didn't come until later on. I was a good age before I had any of that. I got so I could stick it all right. It wasn't so bad. But the caster oil - no" (Pain and Pleasure, p. 19).
Used medicinally since the time of Ancient Egypt. Current scientific research has shown that it is a useful laxative and inducer of labour in pregnant women. (

An obsolete medicine used to treat diarrhea and as an astringent in gargles and mouthwashes. A sap extracted from the wood of a tree found in the East Indies.

catalepsy, cataleptic
A condition characterized by lack of response to external stimuli and by muscular rigidity, so that the limbs remain in whatever position they are placed. It is known to occur in a variety of physical and psychological disorders, such as epilepsy and schizophrenia, and can be induced by hypnosis.

A poultice or plaster as in mustard plaster (OED 1563).

catarrh (pronounced cat - ar; the h is silent)
The 19th cent word for respiratory infections such as colds and bronchitis. Colds were often called ‘epidemic catarrh’. Colds sometimes worsened into bronchitis and were sometimes called ‘acute bronchitis’. Bronchitis is not fatal unless it worsens into pneumonia.

A purgative medicine, from the Greek word “kathairo” meaning to cleanse or purge. An obsolete treatment which caused the patient to either vomit or get diarrhea, thus purging the body of illness caused matter. Purgatives were very commonly used to treat illness before the middle of the 19th century when medical treatment was finally based on scientific evidence. 

catlin, catling
A double-edged, sharp-pointed dismembering knife.

A hot spiced wine drink made with gruel, a thin oat porridge.

cauliflower ear
A scarred and swollen ear. Often seen in professional boxers caused by repeated blows to the ear.

causa causans
The primary cause.

To burn or sear body tissue with a hot iron or caustic agent, in the treatment of a wound to stop bleeding and prevent infection.

An ointment made from beeswax applied to a wound which might be left open or packed with lint and bandaged (19th cent.).

cerebral congestion

A white lead pigment, used in cosmetics to whiten the skin. Used over time, it caused ulceration destroying the complexion.

Chadwick’s Sign
A sign of pregnancy. When a woman is pregnant, the mucosa of the vaginal opening frequently becomes dark blue or purple in appearance. This was considered indicative of pregnancy.

Used for securing the patient during an operation.

chalybeate waters or springs
Waters containing iron salts, believed to be tonic and claimed to relieve female complaints.

chamber pot
A portable toilet bowl, kept in the house, often in the bed chamber.

The initial skin lesion of a syphillis infection.

Charcot’s Sclerosis
Another term for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which Charcot described in 1874.

A pretender to medical knowledge; a quack.

A building where corpses or bones are stored.

A piece of paper in which a pharmacist wraps a single dose of a drug. Means of dispensing a single dose to a patient.  

clean bill of health
1. Certificate required by a port health officer before a vessel can depart a port or enter a port.
2. Cleared of blame and complicity.

chelsea pensioner
A remedy for rheumatism named after the retired soldiers who lived at the Chelsea Hospital, England.

Legs and thighs that are bent outwards, a symptom of rickets, a disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin D in growing children. A crippler of many slum children in the 19th century.

A mild eruptive disease, bearing some resemblance to small-pox. It was disease people got commonly during childhood and was not generally fatal. A vaccine against chickenpox is part of the vaccination given to all Canadian children.

chigres [pronounced jiggers]
Sand fleas that imbed themselves into the soles of feet and must be removed with a needle. West Indies.

Redness and swelling of toes, fingers, nose, ears, or cheeks in cold weather, accompanied by itching and burning and sometimes cracking and ulceration of the skin.

The condition of giving birth.

childbed fever
Septicemia or blood poisoning caused when bacteria gets into the damaged tissues of a woman who has just given birth. Before gloving and handwashing, it killed a lot of new mothers. Most common in hospital births. Completely preventable.

child crowing
A popular name for laryngismus, a spasm of the throat muscles, closing the larynx which occurs in children between ages 3 months and three years. It occurs with great suddenness and can be fatal.

The shaking chill that accompanies a high fever, also known as rigor, a tremor caused by a chill.

chimney sweep's cancer

Cancer of the scrotum, caused by prolonged contact with soot.

Old academic term for surgical.

The bowels.

chittering-bite, -crust, -piece,
A Scottish term meaning a piece of bread, taken to prevent shivering or chattering of the teeth (OED 1808).

chloral or chloral hydrate
White crystals taken as drink mixed with water, it was could be bought from any pharmacy during the 19th century without prescription as a sleeping aid. It was addictive and fatal in overdose (OED 1831). It was used as a mild sedative and pain killer in the early stages of labour given as a drink with either water or fruit juice. It irritated the stomach and often caused vomiting.

Discovered in 1831. Sir James Simpson of Edinburgh used it as an anesthetic in 1847. It was widely used as an anesthetic throughout the 19th century.

Means 'green sickness'. It was a type of anemia which occured in young girls entering puberty and characterized by a green-yellow tinge to the skin. First described in 1520. It was also known as green sickness or the virgin's disease.

Clysis, Clyster
The administration of an enema and an enema. From the Greek word “kluzo” meaning I wash.

choke damp
Also called after damp, foul damp. The carbon monoxide that accumulates in mines and suffocates.

cholagogue, cholegogue
An agent for increasing the flow of bile into the intestines.

choler, choleric
Irritation of the passions; anger; wrath. According to ancient physiological theory, there are four principal humours or fluids in the body - phlegm, blood, choler or yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever any one of these predominates it determines the temper of the mind and body; hence the expressions sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic humours. Choler was believed to be the source of irascibility.

A severe disease of acute gastroenteritis marked by severe cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. It is caused by bacteria called Vibrio cholerae, or Vibrio comma -because it is shaped like a comma. It is transmitted through contaminated water and is seen in wars, displaced persons camps, etc. There is a vaccine that is not very effective, and it is fatal unless treated with adequate intravenous fluids. Antibiotics shorten the duration of the disease, but are not necessary so long as fluids and minerals are replaced.

cholera morbus
A gastrointestinal ailment characterized by griping, diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting.


An infectious disease of the nervous system named by Dr. Thomas Sydenham in 1686. The word means 'a dance' in Greek and refers to the convulsions and twitching of the patient which characterize the disease. Also known as "chorea minor" or "Sydenham's chorea".

chorea magna
The later name for "St. Vitus Dance" or "the dancing mania" which was a form of hysteria prevalent in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Cures were sought at the shrine of St. Vitus.

chrisom, chrisom-child, chrisom-babe
An infant who died during the first month or shortly after baptism, and was shrouded in its chrisom-cloth or baptismal robe. Often seen in obituaries and other death announcements (OED 1542).

christmas disease
A hemorrhagic ailment often confused with hemophilia. First identified in 1952 in Oxford, England and named after the first patient.

churchyard cough
A cough symptomatic of a fatal lung disease, such as tuberculosis (Grose).

The only effective therapy against malaria. Also known as Jesuits bark because for many years, the Jesuits were the only ones who had access to it from their missions to South American where it was harvested.

cingulum bandages
Bandages large enough to wrap like a girdle around the waist.

Mercuric sulfide, used for treating complaints of the head and nerves.

cirrhosis [Greek kirrhos, orange-tawny] – hardening of an internal organ. Applied almost exclusively to the liver. Can be caused by a virus, toxic substances or malnutrition often associated with alcoholism. Adj. cirrhotic.

citrate of magnesia
A mild laxative made of baking soda, epsom salts, tartaric acid, lemon juice and sugar.

Curdled milk used for invalid food (OED 1634).

Common term for gonorrhea, a venereal disease. From the French word "clapier" for rabbit hutch or brothel.

Derogatory term for a pregnant woman who eats clay to alleviate a vitamin deficiency (U.S. south).

cleft palate
A congenital crack in the midline of the hard palate, often associated with a hare lip. A person with this condition usually cannot speak clearly.

A critical period or year in a person's life when major changes in health or fortune are thought to take place; therefore a crisis in the treatment of a disease or medical condition. The term nowadays refers specifically to the menopause.

clonic spasm
A clonic spasm is a seizure involving the whole body, such as an epileptic seizure. The patient can seriously hurt themselves and must be restrained.

A portable toilet, including a seat and chamber pot.

The condition properly known as talipes, a congenital deformity in which the foot is twisted in an unnatural position.

clyster, clyster, clister, glister
A medicine injected into the rectum, to empty or cleanse the bowels, to provide nutrition (OED 1398).

A shrub, native to the Andes, whose leaves contain cocaine and are chewed for their stimulating effects.

cockeye; cockeyed
A habitual squint or crossed eyes.

An area on a lower deck of a naval ship where the surgeon operated, especially during battle.

Cod Liver Oil
Made from the puried livers of the codfish. Used as an all purpose medicinal tonic especially for children, 19th-early 20th cent. U.K."Epsom Salts or caster oil is what they gave you. Caster Oil was very hard to take. They used to put it into milk to lessen the taste but you could still taste it through it. Cod liver oil didn't come until later on. I was a good age before I had any of that. I got so I could stick it all right. It wasn't so bad. But the caster oil - no" (Pain and Pleasure, p. 19).
Prescribed for chronic rheumatism as of 1783 and pulmonary tuberculosis as of 1846-1847 (OED 1615).

One of innumerable euphemisms for testicles.

coffin nails

Sexual intercourse.

coitus interruptus
Sexual intercourse in which the penis is withdrawn before ejaculation, often used as a contraceptive measure.

A medicine derived from meadow saffron, used to treat gout and rheumatic disorders.

A technique for lowering the temperature of a fever patient.

Pain in the bowels.

College of Surgeons
In 1540, Henry VIII united the surgeons and barbers to form the Company of Barber-Surgeons. By the 18th century, through the development of an academic basis for surgical practice, the numbers and importance of surgeons increased and in 1745, the surgeons broke away from the barbers to form a separate Company of Surgeons with its own hall close to the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison. In 1800, the Company of Surgeons was granted a Royal Charter to become The Royal College of Surgeons in London, later of England.

1. A chemical which dries and used to seal lint covered wounds.
2. The dried fruit of the cucurbitaceous plant Citrullus colocynthus used as a purgative.

1. American term for diarrhea with stomach-ache (OED 1823).
2. American term for ‘butterflies in the stomach’, a state of nervous fear (OED 1853).

concupiscence, concupiscent
Sexual desire.

A medical preparation eg. ointment.

confined, confinement
1. child birth
2. general state of pregnancy (OED 1774).

Heart disease, possibly leading to heart failure.

congestion of the hepatic ducts
The condition where gallstones block the flow of bile to the intestines.

conniption fit
A fit of hysterics.

A condition characterized by a wasting of the tissues, especially as seen in tuberculosis. The word was used commonly for tuberculosis in former times. Based on the wasting symptom of the disease where the patient lost a great deal of weight. Galloping consumption was the term used when the patient died within weeks or months of falling ill.

The transmission of disease by direct or indirect contact.

Bad tempered.

convalescent blues or blues
The uniform worn by all British convalescent soldiers of non-officer ranks while in convalescent hospitals. They were loose fitting jackets and pants resembling pjamas worn with a white shirt and red tie. Officers could wear their own choice in clothing or could wear silk pajamas donated by volunteer organizations. Officers worn white armbands decorated with a red king's cross.  All soldiers were issued with armbands which signified their medical status. Worst cases wore white armbands, cases needing 1-6 months of convalescence wore pink armbands, those needing less than a month wore light blue armbands and those almost ready for release from hospital wore dark blue armbands. The blues were much easier to keep clean than standard military uniforms and patients were instantly recognizable from doctors or visitors. Their lack of pockets, done to save money, was seen as humiliating for the soldiers since male clothing traditionally had pockets. Women's clothing did not because women carried purses.  

copper poisoning
Most common when cooking pots and utensils were made of copper. The copper leaches into the food that has been left in the pot for several hours. The symptoms are stomach pain, vomiting and a metallic taste in the mouth. Saliva is often greenish or bluish in colour. Blue vitriol is the name of sulphate of copper that in small doses was used as a purgative.

A refreshing drink or medicine.

Resembling leather.

cornelian tub
A sweating tub used as a cure for venereal disease.

A person employed to cut the corns from feet (OED 1593).

corn sweat
1. Effort to persuade somebody to your way of thinking.
2. American home remedy for fever. Yellow corn, steamed or boiled, put under the blankets of a person with a fever to cause sweating that was seen as therapeutic.

To rub or scrape off

A sea plant used in medicines.

Corrosive Sublimate
An obsolete term for mercuric chloride. It was used by medieval surgeons to cleanse ulcers.

costive, costiveness
1.Constipated (OED c1400).
2. Food that causes constipation (OED 1566).

A person who treats cataracts.

counter charm
Anything used to destroy the effects of enchantment (OED 1601).

The application of an action to the skin to relieve an internal symptom. Eg. a mustard plaster.

court plaster
During the 17th century it became a fashion among the ladies and gentlemen at the Royal Courts of Western countries such as England and France to wear little patches pasted on their faces. Mostly they were decorative and cut into shapes such as stars and moons, hearts and heraldic symbols, however, sometimes they were used to hide small blemishes or to close wounds. They were made of silk spread with a sticky solution of isinglass which are eel eggs. Later, the term referred to an adhesive bandage used to cover superficial wounds.

Covet Garden ague
Venereal disease. Covet Garden in London in the 18th and 19th centuries was a central place for prostitution. Dozens of brothels were said to surround the market area.

cow leech
Cow doctor (OED 1707). Later, called a farrier and later still a veterinarian.

cow pox
A mild form of smallpox which dairy maids acquired from working with tubercular cows. Edward Jenner noticed these women seemed to be immune to smallpox. His experiments at inoculation using cow pox bacteria proved this to be true. This was the beginning of the eradication of smallpox.

An obsolete term for hip pain. Cox is Latin for hip, and algia is from the Greek term ‘Algos” meaning pain.

coxsackie viruses
Initial name for viruses isolated in the feces of children afflicted with poliomyelitis. Named after a town on the Hudson River where they were first identified. 


1. The falling sickness.
2. being weak, unable to walk steadily.

crapula, crapulous
Relating to a hangover, with symptoms of nausea, headache, gastritis, thirst and a generalized malaise; resulting from intemperance.

creeping skerit
Possibly the Water Parsnip Skirret (Sium sisarum), an edible, multi-fingered root used as a diuretic and cleansing agent, good for dropsy, liver disorders and jaundice. Closely related is Upright Water Parsley (Sium angustifolium) which was used for stopping purging and haemorrhages.

creeping crud
A feeling of oncoming illness (U.S. military 20th cent.).

A little noise made by the grating ends of broken bones or by air or another gas in the tissues as in the case of cellular emphysema. Used as an ancient diagnostic symptom. It has been described as similar to the creaking of a door or salt being thrown into a fire.

A sound in the chest heard at the end of an inspiration which is audible in the first stages of pneumonia. It resembles the sound of rubbing hair between the fingers. Laennec, who invented the stethoscope in 1823, named various sounds he heard in the chest and used them to diagnose cardiovascular or respiratory diseases.

Old term for chalk or calcium carbonate, the standard ingredient in antacids; also used in the treatment of diarrhoea. It was originally obtained from the island of Crete, in the Greek archipelago.

cretin, cretinism
A Swiss word for Christian, who once baptized were innocent of original sin. An innocent was once the term used for an idiot, incapable of sin due to mental defect. Thus, cretin came to mean a person afflicted by dwarfism and mental retardation.

Marked with smallpox scars which, if very bad, might resemble the holes in a cribbage board.

criminal conversation
Adultery. It is a measure of our changing language that a guardian in Maturin’s time would be more concerned to know that his ward was engaged in conversation than in intercourse.

Euphemism for venereal disease.

A crucial stage in disease. eg., When a high fever, suddenly breaks and goes down.

crotch rot
Otherwise known as tinea cruris. A fungal infection of the groin that produces rashes and itching. It is caused by heat, trapped moisture and unwashed skin. Most prevalent in the tropics.Also called jungle rot and jock itch (U.S. 20th cent.).

Sick from too much partying (OED 1624).

Croton Oil
A violent purgative oil pressed from the seeds of the plant “croton tigilium”. It is an ancient treatment mentioned in the materia medica of Arabic physician Serapion in the 9th century.

An inflammatory disease of the larynx and trachea of children, marked by a peculiar sharp ringing cough.

crowbill, crowsbill
A type of forceps used to extracts bullets and similar bodies from wounds.

crown breezes
A electrotherapy treatment for hysteria. The patient was strapped into a chair and given small, continual doses of static electricity which made their hair stand on end 19th cent.


1. Indigestion. A sick stomach (OED 1533).
2. Food that is so unbalanced in its humours that it will cause illness if eaten (OED 1533).
3. Early stage of a disease, its crude stage e.g., cataracts that must 'ripen' before being removed (OED 1727).

Smeared with blood; blood stained (OED 1665).


cundum, condum
There is a long history of sheaths for penises to prevent pregnancy and venereal infection. In the 17th century, they were made of the intestines of sheep and were expected to be rinsed out and reused.

The practice of applying a cup or glass to draw blood to the surface of the skin. A partial vacuum has been generated in the cup by heating or suction. A patient suffering from an infectious illness characterized by fever, a rapid pulse and delirium was considered to be suffering from an inflammation caused by congestion of the blood vessels and excited tissues. It was a sthenic’ disease e.g., Thyphoid fever and pneumonia.  Doctors believed that the way to reduce inflammation was to deplete the body of fluids such as blood. This was done by blood letting, leeches, and counter irritants like cupping and blistering. Cupping consisted of a heating a glass or metal cup and placing it on the skin, on the chest or back of a pneumonia patient. As the glass cooled, it pulled the patient’s skin into the cup, creating a painful blister. Blistering was done by putting mustard plasters on the affected skin.

A healer of some kind (OED 1581).


Relating to the skin.

cut one's teeth
Has their permanent teeth and out of babyhood. At age 12 - 14 years, a person has reached adolescence

cynanche parotidaea
The disease known as mumps. Cynanche refers to diseases of the throat and the parotid salivary gland located in front of the ear is the organ most affected by mumps.

An operation involving cutting into the bladder to remove a stone. More generally, the act or practice of opening encysted tumours, for the discharge of morbid matter.