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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.


facies febris
A febrile appearance, flushed with fever.

fallen away
Lost a lot of weight due to illness (U.S. 19th cent.).

falling sickness
Epilepsy, what also known as the sacred disease because the afflicted saw visions and lost control of their senses and bodies. It was also seen as demonic possession. Before the 20th century, it was one of the taboo diseases that was not openly discussed, much like syphillis, insanity or mongolism (OED 1225).

1. Pale red or pale yellow. As in fallow skin (OED 1000).
2. Infertile.

fancy sick
Imagining that one is ill. What a hypochondriac does.

faradic bath
A therapeutic bath created by an electric current passing through the bath water. Used by George Beard, (1839-1883), American neurologist, in his treatment of neurasthenia, a disease he named in 1869.

Fatal, deadly, fate provoking (OED 1656).

A substance that reduces fever; an antipyretic.

febrility, febrile
Weakness caused by fever.

Felo de se
Suicide; self murder.

Female Complaints
A dismissive term used in the 19th century to describe pain that only women seemed to suffer from such as migraine, menstrual cramps, postpartum pain and depression. Opiates were often prescribed to which women became addicted.

A woman (U.S. 19th cent.).

fettle; in good fettle
Health; in good health (19th cent.).

A offensive odor.

An abnormally high body temperature, accompanied by a fast pulse rate and other symptoms. Fever was considered a disease and not a symptom. All fevers involved an elevated body temperature but varied after that. Eruptive fevers involved skin eruptions or pox like measles, smallpox, scarlet fever. They were known to be contagious.

Intermittent fevers were associated with malaria. The symptoms came and went, daily or quotidian, every other day or tertian or every third day or quartan. Continued fevers were those where the patients temperature remained elevated. These included typhoid fever, typhus fever and other less defined fevers.

Remittent fevers  was one of the most commonin which the temperature varied but did not go return to normal. They were called fevers of unknown origin. Camp fever was yellow fever, typhoid fever, malaria, typhomalarial fever depending on what was predominant in a military camp.

Feverish (OED 1398).

A slight fever (OED 1712).

fever of the blood
Maturin is experiencing hot-bloodedness or lovesickness, rather than a medical condition.

1. A pin or ring inserted into a young woman’s genitalia to prevent intercourse (18th cent. naval term).
2. The thinner of the two bones between the knee and ankle.

fin out
Badly injured and close to death (Whaling industry, referring originally to a dying whale, U.S. 19th cent.).

fintoed, finfooted
Having a membrane between the toes (OED 1674).

A piece of skin or flesh dangling from a wound which must be sewn up. Also, a piece deliberately left in an amputation, to cover the site of the amputation with skin.


Several plants are called this, however, it was the common name for the plant, Inula dysenterica and I. Pulicaria, which was sprinkled in beds to drive out bugs (OED 1548). The word 'bane' means to kill especially by poison.

A lancet used for letting blood.

fleam-toothed saw
A saw with teeth shaped like an isosceles triangle, sharpened on both edges.


Tremors of the body that often accompany a high fever, e.g. in Malaria (OED 1631).

fluor albus
White venereal discharge.

1.Early word for dysentary. Bloody diarrhoea (OED 1382).
2. Discharge from the eyes or mouth (OED 1377).

fluxion of the humours
The body being affected by the falling damps and other changes in the weather will affect the balance of the humours.

folie circulaire
Manic depression.

folie de grandeur
Delusions of grandeur.

Congenitally stupid (OED 1597 - Shakespeare. 2 Henry V, V.51).

force hypermécanique
A vital force, neither physical nor chemical in its nature, which was held to be active in living organisms only. It arose from the Vitalism movement originating in France in the second half of the 18th century.

An orphan or child whose parents cannot provide for him. In England, if the parish did not have a foundling hospital, a place specifically for such children, they were sent to the parish workhouse where they stayed until they were apprenticed out to local tradesmen to learn their trade. Oliver Twist in Charles Dicken’s book of the same name is a good example of such a child. Girls were sent into private homes and institutions to work as maids. The London Foundling Hospital, which took children from all over London, was established in 1741.


frail, frailing
To beat, a beating.

Another term for Yaws. Latin for raspberry, it describes the raspberry like eruption on the skin (OED 1881).

A sterile female animal, with the internal organs of a male but the external rudimentary organs of a female.

Originally, it meant a low, continuous growling  heard in the chest with a stethoscope. Later, it referred to a palpable vibration that can be felt through the chest wall when the patient speaks. Used to diagnose cardiovascular or respiratory disorders.

One of innumerable euphemisms for being Infected with venereal disease (U.S. 19th cent.).

Worrying, restless (U.S. 19th cent.).

Friedreich’s Disease
Another term for Hereditary spinal ataxia (OED 1863).


Stuffy, in a hot and stale atmosphere.

Ill smelling, partly decomposed (U.S. 19th cent.).

A person who does not eat meat (1910).

furor uterinus (PC 58):
Violent outbursts of anger by presumably frustrated female sexual desire. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1st ed.) it is “salacity in women, attended with impudence, restlessness and a delirium. It arises from a too great sensibility of the pudenda”.