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.


A watery discharge from a skin ulcer.

Afflicted with jaundice.

iliac passion
Any sharp pain in the abdomen such as caused by appendicitis (OED 1398).

ill breath
Foul-smelling breath, a symptom of scurvy.

illicit venery
Sexual activity not approved by society, particularly adultery.

ill-looking cast
A twist or defect in the eye.

1. Physically weak (OED 1549).
2. Severely lacking in intelligence, stupid, incompetent (OED 1755).

The state of being an imbecile, either physically weak (OED 1533) or stupid (OED 1624)

An abscess

1. The inability to control sphincters, and thus a person involuntarily soils himself.
2. Unchaste, indulging in sinful behavior.
3. The inability to control your actions or emotions. Persons who indulged recklessly in gambling or drinking were said to be incontinent. Persons who were too emotional were also called incontinent.

A drunk.

infantile asphixia
Crib death (OED 1851).

infantile lues; luez
Luez, Latin for pestilence, obsolete term for syphilis. Osler recommended to student doctors that they refer to syphilis with this term to a mother when they diagnose a case of congenital syphilis in a child. Called infantile lues, “Many a poor woman has lived in blissful ignorance of the precise nature of her child’s affliction until an incautious word has suggested to her the cause and then for her, farewell the tranquil mind.” We shall use the old term lues.’ Bliss. William Osler, p. 104".

infantile scurvy
Vitamin C deficiency in infants. Barlow's disease. Named after Thomas Barlow, English physician, 1845-1945.

Infantile Sprue
Now called "Celiac Disease" or "Gee-Harter’s Disease".

inferior members
The excruciatingly polite euphemism for the legs.(U.K. 19th cent.). Also limbs.

inflammation of the lungs

An acute, contagious, infectious disease, characterized by inflammation of the respiratory tract, fever, muscular pain, and, often, intestinal disorders. It is viral, fatal depending on the strain. The influenza pandemic of 1916-1918 killed more people than the World War 1914-1918.

The liquid extract that results from steeping a substance in water. Also, the slow introduction of a solution into the body through a vein.

The internal organs of the body.

in your naked bed
To be in your sick bed (U.S. New Hampshire, 1914).

Mental faculties

Indulging bodily appetites to excess; usually relating to drunkenness. Temperance societies were very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the temperance movement was successful in making the distillation, selling, serving and drinking of alcoholic beverages illegal in many countries for varying periods of time. In Canada, every province made their own decision. Prince Edward Island was first to enact the law in 1900 and last to repeal it in 1948. Most provinces repealed the act during the 1920's. In the United states, 'Prohibition' was in effect between 1920-1933.

inward wen
An internal tumour.

A drug prepared from the dried roots of a South American shrub, used as a purgative and emetic. Now known as ipecac (BATM 89). During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it could be bought at any pharmacy without prescription and was a very popular, all purpose medicine.

iron constitution
A robust state of health.

isolation hospital
A hospital that treats patients with communicable diseases. These patients have been housed separately from other patients to prevent the spread of the disease. Some general hospitals had separate buildings and some had separate wards. Smallpox hospitals and tuberculosis sanatoriums are two examples.

Small globular objects such as dried peas or wooden beads were placed into an abscess or ulcer so as to induce or increase the creation of pus which was seen as a sign of healing, called 'laudable pus'.

the itch
Itchy scalp due to an infestation of ringworm.