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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.


Constant and excessive production of tears.

ladies' fever
Another name for syphilis, a venereal disease (U.S. 20th cent.).

To cut the flesh with a sharp instrument, to ease swelling or to allow a tooth to emerge.

A surgical instrument, usually with two edges and a point, used for bleeding or opening abscesses.

To stab or to tear.

A syrupy medicine meant to be licked up with the tongue, often used to treat coughs and sore throats.

Faintness or weariness.

Physical or mental weariness.

Sound or wholesome.

laudable exudation
An expression of sound matter from a body.

laudable pus
Pus in a wound was seen as sign of healing.

Opium mixed into wine, used as a sleep aid. Widely prescribed and very addictive. Widely used painkiller in 19th century. Widely available  in liquid with 10 percent opium in an alcohol solution. No prescription needed, available from pharmacies, through doctors and patent medicine salesmen, given to adults and children.  Used as a painkiller and a sedative. Little idea of how addictive it was, and so common medical problems led to addiction. The usual dose of laudanum was 25 drops.

laughing gas
Nitrous oxide, used as an anaesthetic. Addictive.

1. Delivery of a baby.
2. Labour of a pregnant woman.
3. The cry or groan of a woman in labour.

Lavoisier’s trephine
A surgical sawlike instrument for removing circular sections of bone, especially from a skull. Presumably invented by Lavoisier.

laying out
Before the use of funeral homes and funeral directors became normal, a local 'handy woman' did with a recently deceased person in that person's family home. The body was straightened, washed, dressed or wrapped in its shroud, and the jaw was bandaged shut until rigor mortis set in.  The body was then ready to be viewed by the family.

A leper.

lazaretto or lazar house
A specialized hospital for people suffering from leprosy, or Hanson’s Disease. Many hospitals in Europe began in the Middle Ages, lazarettos were run by religious houses.  

lead-colic; lead distemper; lead-encephalopathy; lead palsy; lead paralysis The names of diseases caused by the presence of lead in the body (OED 1774-1897). Often occupational diseases of people who work with lead.

leather-bound rope
A rope to bind a patient but not cause damage to the skin through friction.

leech; leechman; leech-finger
1. A physician (OED c.900).
2. Any of about 650 species of segmented, or annelid, worms of the class Hirudinea. A small sucker, which contains the mouth, is at the anterior end; a large sucker is at the posterior end. All leeches have 34 body segments. Leeches that attack humans belong to the family Gnathobdellidae. Some species have been used medically for centuries; in Europe the use of leeches to drain off blood reached its height of popularity in the 19th century. In addition to H. medicinalis of Europe, the Algerian dragon (H. troctina) was used. Gnathobdella ferox was commonly used in Asia. The use of leeches to clean the wounds of dead tissue has been resurrected recently.

The work of a physician (OED c. 900).

A physician's fee (OED c. 900).

leech-house (OED c. 900).
A hospital.

A physician. (OED c.900).

A physician (OED c. 900).

lemon juice
A dietary supplement used to avoid scurvy.

lemon shrub
A liquor composed of lemon juice and sugar and spirits.

Emollient, soothing, mitigating, laxative; any palliative; an application for easing pain; a mild purgative.

lenitives - effect on the spleen
It was thought that the spleen out of balance led one to violent ill-nature or ill-humor, made one irritable and passionately angry - as in "venting one’s spleen" - therefore ,any soothing was beneficial.

Thick, sluggish blood that blood letters thought clogged the blood vessels.

leopard's bane
A plant of the genus Doronicum. A perennial herb used as a poison. Bane means poison.

Hansen's disease - an infectious bacterial disease which slowly eats away the body. Lepers were traditionally outcasts from society. The first medieval hospitals were lazarettos, hospitals for lepers.

lettuce-opium; lactucarium
The juice of lettuce has a narcotic property which has long been used as a folk remedy for pain relief (OED 1832).

Pale coloured blood, slow moving and cold.

liberal dram
Generous dose.


The excruciatingly polite euphemism for arms and legs (U.K. 19th cent.). Also called inferior members.

lime - used with coca
Coca leaves were chewed with a ball made from ashes of some plants such as the quinua. The lime contained in those ashes, helped release the leaves' alkaloids, also produces a strong degrading of the cocaine molecule.

A dietary supplement used to avoid scurvy.

A syrupy medicine meant to be licked up with the tongue, often used to treat coughs and sore throats.

A medicine, usually containing alcohol or camphor, applied to the skin to relieve pain.

A variety of flax, grown for oil and grain, considered to be soothing.

An absorbent cotton or linen fabric used to bandage wounds.


Bleary sight

liquescent belly

liquor ammoniae acetatis
A solution of ammonium acetate, used to promote sweating.

A surgeon who removed bladder stones.

Incision into the bladder for removing a stone.

A light frame used to carry sick people.

liver ailments
The liver was assumed to cause all types of ailments. It was the all purpose diagnosis given for ill health.

liver ruined in ten days’ time.
Over eating and bad diet was believed to cause liver ailments.

Lice or fleas on a person's body or in their clothing.

With a disordered liver, especially as a result of drinking to excess.

Showing a greyish tinge.

1. A flaccid penis.
2. A dull, stupid man (Grose).

Watery oatmeal porridge prescribed by a naval surgeon to feed the sick.

loblolly boy
1. Nickname for the surgeon’s servant on board a naval fighting ship.
2. A surgeon on a naval fighting ship.
3. A person on board a man-of-war who attends to the surgeon and his mates, but is generally unskilled in the healing arts. Lob was Middle English for "to boil", and lolly and scouse were once used interchangeably. Therefore, the loblolly person was the one who boiled the lolly or the scouse for the sickbay.

lock hospital
Isolation hospital for treating sexually transmitted diseases among prostitutes. They were sentenced to treatment by the courts and were not allowed to leave until considered cured.

Another name for a syrupy medicine meant to be licked up with the tongue, often used to treat coughs and sore throats.


low diet
A diet involving no meat.

low fevers
Fevers not accompanied by high temperatures.


Lucatellus’ balsam
An emollient ointment which could also be taken internally, for wounds and sores, or against coughs. It was coloured red and its main ingredients were wax and turpentine.

luez; lues
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".

A somewhat derogatory term for a person suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. They were easily identifiable by their terrible coughing.

Lungs that adhere to the skin.


An ulcerative skin disease.

1. Being in bed preparing to give birth (c1440).
2. A period of ten to fourteen days when a woman was kept in bed after giving birth and not expected to get up even to use the bathroom. While causing medical problems, it did give a new mother a good rest before taking on the responsibilities of child and household care. Common practice in UK until mid 20th cent.  Also  called confinement or accouchment.

A maternity hospital where pregnant women go to give birth (OED 1770).