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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.


Obsessed or harassed, as by fears.

To cripple, as by cutting the hamstring tendon behind the knee.

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

A leper. Leprosy is now called "Hansen's Disease".

The aqueous solution of ammonia, a sudorific used to treat fevers. It was also used to revive unconscious patients.

The Royal Hospital at Gosport in Hampshire, the chief naval hospital in Britain, opened in 1753.

Haverhill Fever
Another term for Erythema anthriticum epidemicum. Named after Haverhill, Massachusetts, where an epidemic broke out in 1926 and it was first recognized as a separate bacterial disease caused by the Haverhillia multiformis.

A sudden pain in the heart.

heat spots
A common name for small inflamed patches on the skin, especially on the face and neck that appear during hot weather.

A type of schizophrenia which occurs in adolescence (OED 1871). From the Greek word hebe meaning youth.

There are several plants with this name e.g.,  black hellebore (Helleborus niger), false hellebore (Adonis autumnalis or Adonis vernalis), green hellebore (Veratrum viride), white hellebore (Veratrum album) - used as purgatives, heart stimulants or treatments for mental disease.

helleborus niger
The Christmas Rose; used as a heart stimulant.

A pain that affects only one side of the head.

A coarse, hairy, foul-smelling poisonous plant of the nightshade family, the leaves of which have narcotic properties.

heroic dose
A strong dose.

Hectic fever

hiera picra
"Priestly bitters", a name given to many medicines in the Greek pharmacopoeia but especially to a purgative drug composed of aloes and canella bark, sometimes mixed with honey and other ingredients.

A depression on the surface of an organ around the point where vessels or nerves enter or exit.

Sciatica. Pain in the line of the distribution of the sciatic nerve (buttock, back of thigh, calf and foot).

In low spirits; depressed.

Hippocratic oath , Hippocrates
The oath sworn by physicians as a part of their medical school graduation, attributed to Hippocrates, the 5th century B.C. Greek physician who is considered the father of western medicine. Both the classical and the modern versions have a privacy statement. In the modern version, "That whatsoever you shall see or hear of the lives of men or women which is not fitting to be spoken, you will keep inviolably secret." A body of medical works, Corpus Hippocratum, including the Hippocratic oath, has survived to modern times and was part of the course of medical study well into the 19th century.

hobnail liver
A name given to a diseased liver, when it presents protruding scars on its surface resembling hobnails (OED 1882). Hobnails were nails with large heads and short pins which were used to protect the shoe leather of shoes and boots.  The term is usually associated in rural peasants.

hogs lard
Mercury was triturated with this to produce an ointment for treating syphilis. Lard or grease from various animals was used as a base for ointment.

Cytisus scoparius or Scotch broom, a herb having anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties. Not to be confused with Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum).

Large, jutting buttocks which might resemble a small basket called a hopper used to carry seed when sowing a field (U.S. 19th cent.).

A pillow stuffed with dried hop plants and other herbs, believed to induce sleep.

A veterinary surgeon. A leech is a medieval name for a surgeon.

hortus siccus
A dry garden, or herbarium.

hospital ship
A ship serving as a hospital.

hum durgeon
An imaginary illness (U.S. 19th cent.).

humours, rectify the
The four humours of the body were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. It was believed necessary to keep the humours in proper balance for good health; hence the need to "rectify the humours." This belief, held from Greek medicine until the 19th century, led to our words for temperament - sanguine or cheerful; phlegmatic or calm, cool, and collected; yellow bile (choler) led to bilious or angry; and black bile to melancholy.

hydatic cysts
A cyst caused by infection from a larval tapeworm, also called hydatid cysts.

Water in the scrotum or testicle. Also called dropsy of the testicle (OED 1851).


A symptom of rabies or canine madness when transmitted to man, consisting in an aversion to water or other liquids, and difficulty in swallowing them; the disease of rabies, esp. in human beings (OED 1547).

Another term for edema, the accumulation of water in the tissues due to kidney failure. From the Greek word hydro meaning water. It was shortened and altered to “dropsy” .

The Greek goddess of health.

Sleep inducing

hysteria, hysterical, hysteric
Irrational behavior or emotional outbursts. Word means attack of the uterus. Women were thought to be particularly susceptible because they had a womb (Lat. hystero - womb), which was seen as a cause of a lot of medical problems in women especially childless ones. This was the reasoning behind hysterectomy as a treatment for mental illness in women during the 19th century.