Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

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.

Do you know what these words refer to? Click!

About the Words and Their Definitions

These words are often found in medical books from the 19th century and earlier, medical records and death certificates. Definitions for some terms do not have current equivalents because the term was used as a catchall when a more specific diagnosis wasn't possible such as apoplexy or the disease was in fact a symptom such as fever. Terms such as syphilis with serious social stigma attached to them were often avoided on death certificates and general terms such as fever, heart disease, dementia or paralysis written in their place.

The Oxford English Dictionary is, of course, the mother of all English dictionaries and the preeminent source for definitions, etymologies and usage over time from Anglo Saxon to contemporary English all over the world.

If the OED contains the word, "OED" and the date of its first reported publication is included.  If there is a 'c' in front of the date, it stands for 'circa' which means that the date is approximate. Otherwise, another source, location of usage and broad time frame such as "19th cent." is provided where possible. 

Other Sources:

    • Bartlett, John. Dictionary of Americanisms. New York: Crescent Books, 1989. Reprint. Originally published in 1849.
    • Bliss, Michael. William Osler: a life in medicine. 1999.
    • Gibson, Faith and Sue Towers. Pain and pleasure: Rathmoyle reminisences. Ballycastle, Ireland: Northern Health and Social Services Board, 1990.
    • Gould, William. Maine lingo: boiled owls & wazzats. Maine: Down East books, 1975.
    • Grose, Francis. The vulgar tongue: buckish slang and pickpocket eloquence.London, Eng.: Summerdale Press, 2004. Reprint. Originally published: 1785.
    • Halliwell-Phillips, J.O. Dictionary of archaic & provincial, obsolete phrases, proverbs and ancient customs. NY: AMS Press, 1973.
    • Hawthorne, Diana. The standard home doctor. London, Eng.: W.&G Foyle, 1945.
    • Hendrickson, Robert. Yankee talk: a dictionary of New England expressions. Facts on File, 1996.
    • Partridge, Eric. Dictionary of slang and unconventional English. Reprint ed. 1990.
    • Storey, G.M. Dictionary of Newfoundland English. 2nd ed. University of Toronto, 1999.
    • Wain, Harry. The story behind the word: some interesting origins of medical terms. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1958.
    • Worth, Jennifer. Call the midwife: a true story of the East End in the 1950's. Phoenix, 2012. Reprint. Originally published: 2002.