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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.


Over fatigued perhaps like a galley slave, a slave who rows in great oared ship (U.S. 19th cent.).

1. A small pot or jar used for containing medicine or ointment.
2. A slang term for an apothecary (U.S. 19th cent.).

galloping consumption
The term used when a person died of pulmonary tuberculosis (consumption) within weeks or months of falling ill.

game leg
A crippled leg.

gangrene, gangrenous, gangrened
Necrosis or death of tissue due to deficient or absent blood supply or infection.

gangrene, hospital
Is a severe streptococcal wound infection that was often fatal. Extremely contagious and fast moving. A healthy wound can contract the disease and kill the patient in days. Tissue outwards of the wound can die, 1 inch per hour in severe cases. Treatment included isolation of the patient, cleaning the wound with a bromine solution, carbolic acid or iodine which was very painful. It had good results. In cases where a limb is infected, amputation  to stop the spread to healthy tissue is indicated. 46 percent of hospital gangrene patients in  the Civli War died. Narcotizing fasciitis is a similar wound infection with a fatality rate of 20 percent.

ganted out
Gaunt. Lost a lot of weight from overwork or illness (U.S 19th cent.).

gaseous water from a sulfurous spring
Mineral water, believed to have curative powers.

gaol fever
Typhus-louse borne, a disease communicated between humans by infected lice. Called gaol (pronounced jail) fever because it often infected prisoners.

gastric impression
An indentation on the surface of the spleen caused by pressure from the stomach.

gathered breast
Also called a milk abscess. A swelling filled with pus or an open sore which develops on the breast of a nursing mother. The child must be weaned.

A castrated animal.

general paresis of the insane, paresis
A diagnosis that appeared on death certificates when the deceased was thought to have died of syphilis. Syphilis in its final, fatal stage often caused mental deterioration and paralysis. It was often misdiagnosed  but the stigma of syphilis would have precluded it from being written openly on a death certificate. Now called neurosyphillis (OED 1862).

GI cocktail
A laxative beverage often made from epsom salts in water (U.S. 20th cent.).

A slight sign of life such as a tremor (Newfoundland. DNE).

gilded pills
Pills coated in something sweet to make them more palatable.

Squinting (U.S. 19th cent.).

Eyes (U.S. 19th cent.).

gin liver
A liver scarred and fibrous through alcoholism.

Smooth, without hair.

Mucus which is coughed up (Newfoundland. DNE).

A contagious disease in horses, the chief symptoms of which are swellings beneath the jaw and discharge of mucous matter from the nostrils (1523). Transmittable to humans through contact. It is an occupational disease of people who work closely with horses.

glanders pustules
The scaring on a person's neck after an attack of glanders (OED 1764).

glass eyes
A nick name for a person who wears glasses (U.S. 19th cent.).

Dull, pale green to grayish as in eyes suffering from glaucoma which are covered in a film.

A morbid discharge of thin liquid from a wound or ulcer. Specifically, it is the discharge from a penis when the patient is suffering from gonorrhea.

To swallow (Newfoundland. DNE).

gluteus maximus
The buttock muscle.

Godfrey’s cordial
Thomas Godfrey, who died around 1722, created a cordial of opium, sassafras and treacle, which continued to be made long after his death.

Large, prominent eyes (U.S. 19th cent.).

Gooseberry eyed
Dull, grey eyes like boiled gooseberries (U.S. 19th cent.).

gommel or gommil
A mentally defective person (Newfoundland. DNE).

Extreme fatigue, exhaustion (U.S. 19th cent.).

Self taught midwife (England, 20th cent. and earlier). Also called handy woman.

gout, gouty
A disease resulting from a disturbance of uric acid metabolism, characterized by swelling and severe pain, notably in the big toe.

gouty kidney
Bright's Disease because it was frequently accompanied by gout.

The smallest English and US unit of weight, equal to 1/5760 of a pound Troy, or 1/7000 of a pound avoirdupois.

Graham bread
Bread made of unsifted wheat flour which was easily digested and recommended for the diets of the sick and invalid.

Person who lives by the Graham System of diet recommended by Sylvester Graham, an American health reformer, (1794-1851 )and the inventor of health foods such as Graham crackers. The Graham System excluded all 'animal food' and stimulating drinks including alcohol, coffee and tea.

granny, granny woman
A midwife (Newfoundland) DNE.

granite insides

A strong immune system or will to live (U.S. 19th cent.).

Grass Widow
A married woman who is temporarily separated from her husband. Usually, the husband was away on business for an extended period.

An obsolete term meaning “heavy with child”; in last months of pregnancy.

gravey- eyed
Bleary eyed, runny, perhaps with an eye disease (U.S. 19th cent.).

great pox
One of innumerable euphemisms for syphilis, a venereal disease.

great with child;heavy with child
Having the large belly of a pregnant woman in her last trimester.

green doctor
Sap of the fir tree which was used to salve cuts (Newfoundland DNE).

green sickness
A form of anemia in adolescent girls or unmarried women thought to be caused by their celibacy; also called "Virgin's disease"; "chloria".

Green vegetables, used as a treatment for scurvy.

Gregory's cordial
A patent medicine. Possibly liquid form of Gregory's powder which was a laxative containing rhubarb, magnesia, and ginger.

grey powder
A rarely-used therapy made of mercury and chalk.

grinder's asthma
An occupational disease caused by the inhalation of stone dust.

gripes, griping of the guts
Sudden intense pain in the intestines, possibly associated with the diarrhea typical of dysentery.

From the French term ‘la grippe” meaning a cold, fever or influenza (OED 1775).

Childbirth (OED 1579).

groaning board
The table or sideboard on which food for friends and attendants is spread during a childbirth.

groaning chair or groaning stool
What the woman sits on during or after giving birth (OED 1886, 1893).

The food and drink provided for friends and attendants and at a childbirth, such as groaning-beer, groaning bread, groaning cake, groaning cheese, groaning drink, groaning malt, and groaning pie (OED 1677).

grog blossoms
A common term for rosacea which causes red blotches on the face, the cheeks and nose. Said to be caused by overindulgence in alcohol drinking. Grog was a naval term for rum and water.

gross humours
Possibly a thick discharge from a wound.

gross surfeit

A general feeling of illness or discomfort (U.S. 19th cent.).

A watery porridge that Oliver Twist wanted more of in the workhouse.

The resin obtained from Guaiacum Sanctum tree (also known as lignum vitae), native to tropical America, used as a medicine to treat respiratory disorders. It had earlier been proposed as a sweating treatment for syphilis, which had caused Stephen’s friends the Fuggers to try to corner the market for this substance.


The throat.

A sore on the gums caused by decayed teeth.

gumma, gummata
A tumor of syphilitic origin.

Surgical thread made from the intestines of an animal e.g. cat gut.

A stomach caused by overeating (Commonwealth military, 20th cent.).

gut foundered
Very hungry (Newfoundland DNE).

Guy's Hospital is a famous teaching hospital in London, England, founded in 1722.

Having both male and female characteristics  (PC 465).

gyppy tummy
Diarrhea and stomach ache caused by anxiety on the eve of battle (Commonwealth military, 20th cent).