Old timey medical terms
July 17, 2018 1:05 PM   Subscribe

In some novels and other books I've read, characters suffer from lumbago, catarrh and apoplexy. Today, we would call these lower back pain, postnasal discharge, and a stroke. What are other older, now disused, medical terms? And what do they mean?
posted by the man of twists and turns to Writing & Language (47 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
My grandmother suffered from depression and anxiety, and said she had "the jitters."

I suppose there was also "the vapors."
posted by Melismata at 1:07 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


"Consumption" usually meant pulmonary tuberculosis.
posted by jesourie at 1:08 PM on July 17, 2018 [9 favorites]


The "grippe" is an old word for flu.

"Quinsy" is a peritonsillar abscess.
posted by darchildre at 1:10 PM on July 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


There's a collection here dubbed Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms with examples like "infantile paralysis" for polio.
posted by exogenous at 1:11 PM on July 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


I don't think people come down with "ague" anymore — at least, I only seem to encounter it in a historical context.
posted by mumkin at 1:14 PM on July 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


"Dropsy" is an old term for Edema.

Epilepsy used to be commonly referred to (rather crassly) as "Falling Sickness".
posted by Ufez Jones at 1:16 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


How is the first response not female hysteria?
posted by amtho at 1:21 PM on July 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


Ague (or fever and ague) in historical contexts is likely malaria.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:22 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


lumbago, catarrh and apoplexy

We still have all of these outside of the US. (Well, maybe not apoplexy.)

Anyway, women no longer die of childbed fever; instead, we die of puerperal fever. Instead of consumption, we now have tuberculosis, and rarely die from it in the first world. And, obviously, hysteria was not what we call hysteria today :)
posted by DarlingBri at 1:26 PM on July 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


"Gout" has been in use since the 13th century (or before), but I know of no modern replacement.
posted by ubiquity at 1:27 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Helen Keller went deaf and blind from "brain fever," which was either meningitis or scarlet fever.
posted by Melismata at 1:29 PM on July 17, 2018


"Gout" has been in use since the 13th century (or before), but I know of no modern replacement.

I mean, I've known people who had gout and they called it gout.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:29 PM on July 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


Ptomaine poisoning was a term formerly used for 'food poisoning'.
posted by misteraitch at 1:30 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


A "moron" used to be a perfectly acceptable term to describe someone who was cognitively impaired.
posted by Melismata at 1:34 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


marthambles!
posted by poffin boffin at 1:40 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


"Neurasthenia" is my favorite one. Figures heavily in Proust; doesn't map directly to any of our modern psychiatric afflictions. Pychology/psychiatry in general is filled with these.
posted by billjings at 1:48 PM on July 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


"Neuralgia", which I think was just unexplained pain.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:48 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Emphysema is an old term for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Although it was used relatively recently, it is now in disuse.
posted by candasartan at 1:56 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Some 18th century ones:

'Costive' for constipated
'Phthisis' was a wasting disease, usually tuberculosis
'Borborygmus' for a loudly rumbling stomach
'Floodings' for heavy menstrual bleeding/haemorrhage
'Gleets' for genital discharge (usually associated with syphilis or other STIs)
'Vigilia' for insomnia.
posted by Catseye at 2:12 PM on July 17, 2018


St. Vitus's Dance = Sydenham's chorea
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:13 PM on July 17, 2018


"Neuralgia", which I think was just unexplained pain.

It's still very much in use and is the current terminology for pain caused by nerve damage.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:20 PM on July 17, 2018 [16 favorites]


Neurasthenia is an old term that's kind of a mess to try to say what it was, because it covered both mental and physical illnesses we could now better diagnose, but attributed the causes of physical issues to mental health issues.

If you take a look at the 1920 book The Nervous Housewife by Abraham Myerson, on pages 20-22 there's a passage about neurasthenia that captures accurately some of the basic symptoms of myalgic encephalomyelitis (what's commonly diagnosed in the U.S. under the name "chronic fatigue syndrome" and has carried several other names as well), but in the next few pages and through the rest of the book, Myerson explains the symptoms as psychological.

This is a mindset people with ME continue to deal with from parts of the medical establishment: cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy are still being recommended in some places as treatments, though they are, respectively, ineffective at improving and dangerous to people with ME, whose physical issues can't be improved with mental health interventions and who must stay rigidly within their physical limits in order not to worsen.

This comment brought to you by my having been totally disabled by ME ten years ago and having a great deal of free time. Also, on preview, billjings got in here and named it while I was typing this long comment.
posted by jocelmeow at 2:30 PM on July 17, 2018 [7 favorites]


There’s more info in the Neurasthenia Wikipedia link above, but I wanted to highlight that it is still a diagnosis in parts of Asia and now the US DSM refers to it as a “culture bound” syndrome of China and Japan.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 2:53 PM on July 17, 2018


They used to call it demonic possession but now it's more commonly called epilepsy.

On a more serious epilepsy note (I'm epileptic, AMA), what was once referred to as a Grand Mal Seizure is now more typically called a Tonic-Clonic Seizure, but the older term is still common outside of medical use.
posted by The Bellman at 2:58 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that despite apoplexy being passe, the term apoplectic lives on, I suppose because it's more felicitous than "so angry it could give them a stroke."
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 3:11 PM on July 17, 2018


My favorite old-timey term is spes phthisica (a state of euphoria occurring in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis). I believe it usually heralded the onset of death.

(I would be curious if this was a real thing, still found in contemporary TB patients, or was more of a cultural trope...)
posted by kalimac at 3:14 PM on July 17, 2018


"Rising of the Lights", lights meaning lungs; seems to mean croup or general difficulty breathing.
posted by What is E. T. short for? at 4:09 PM on July 17, 2018


'Borborygmus' for a loudly rumbling stomach

Still used by health care professionals!
posted by snorkmaiden at 5:11 PM on July 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Edward Tufte has a great reproduction of Graunt's Table of Casualties in one of his books, listing what people died of between 1647 and 1659. My favorites are "wen" and "tissick." Oh, and "rising of the lights."
posted by media_itoku at 5:20 PM on July 17, 2018


Suppression, suppression of the menses - being pregnant, not having menstrual periods, treated with a turpentine tonic that might produce a miscarriage. The same tonic was also used to enhance fertility...

Status Lymphaticus - When a boxer or prize fighter died it was considered to be the result of a congenital weakness in the circulation.

Megrim - Migraine

Dyspepsia - term mostly out of use, meaning indigestion

Falling hair - When your hair falls out for whatever reason

Stopage - constipation

Melancholy - depression

Flux - a discharge. Exactly what type of discharge depended on context. If the patient was a man, having a bloody flux would mean bloody diarrhea, but for a women might merely mean menstruation.

Courses - another word for menstruation

Marasmus, inanition, failure to thrive and teething - infant deaths were often attributed to these. In one US community almost a quarter of the infants who died had the cause of death listed as "teething".

Picardy Sweats - killed thousands, believed to have originated in Picardy, no one knows for sure what it was.

French pox, Engish pox, great pox - syphilis

Lazarus - someone with leprosy

Goiter - swollen thyroid, now very rare due to salt being iodized.

Chillblains - the result when the extremities were frozen, swollen darkened tissue, treated with applications of goose grease

Catatonia - stupor caused by schizophrenia (now easily treatable) At one time the majority of patients in mental hospitals had catatonia.

Green sickness - mentally unbalanced caused by being in love, occasionally leading to suicide

Biliousness - indigestion in the mild form, liver failure in the serious form

Hydrophobia - rabies - if a person contracted rabies they were believed to be driven into a frenzy by the sight or sound of running water

Water on the brain - Hydrocephalus

Water on the knee - swollen knee

Red wolf - lupus

Jail fever and ship's fever - the 18th century these were a common cause of death in men who were impressed or incarcerated and was probably frequently alcohol withdrawal, e.g the DT's.

Carbuncles - boils

Growing pains - aching long bones in teenaged children who have been growing quickly, probably shin splints and similar strains from overwork.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:20 PM on July 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Shell shock was used during World War I to describe what now is generally referred to as PTSD.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:25 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Shell shock was used during World War I to describe what now is generally referred to as PTSD.

Before that, it was called cowardice!
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:56 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Catatonia is still very much in use, though not confined to schizophrenia (which used to be called "dementia praecox").
posted by lazuli at 9:14 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Chilblains still happen! I used to get them on fingers and toes every winter when I was obliged to spend a lot of time going between cold and warm areas. They are kind of half-painful half-itchy, but not serious unless you let them crack and bleed. I don't know if there is a modern English word for the condition, though.

Shell shock was, according to Elizabeth Samet's excellent book of the same name (mostly on other topics, though), called "Soldier's Heart" as far back as the Civil War.
posted by huimangm at 9:26 PM on July 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Neurotic, used to describe people with a variety of anxiety disorders.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 9:38 PM on July 17, 2018


Jail fever and ship's fever - the 18th century these were a common cause of death in men who were impressed or incarcerated and was probably frequently alcohol withdrawal, e.g the DT's.

gaol fever was typhus actually.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:57 AM on July 18, 2018


Goiter is still used. Salt isn't iodinized everywhere but also because other conditions and medications (such as lithium) can cause it.

I had no idea that emphysema and grand mal seizure were out of proper use. I've learned a tonne from this question.

I chose to own 'neurotic' as my parents called me that my entire childhood, long before I knew it meant anxiety disorders (which were clearly my fault since I was always being told to stop being so neurotic).
posted by kitten magic at 1:40 AM on July 18, 2018


Huntington disease used to be called "senile chorea."

Parkinson disease was "paralysis agitans" (you still see this in some medical billing software)

Leukemia was "suppuration of the blood"

"French pox" was syphilis. In France, I think it was called "German pox."

What we now call "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" was known for years as "dementia pugilistica" or "punch drunk."
posted by basalganglia at 2:06 AM on July 18, 2018


Melancholia: depression, sadness etc.
posted by james33 at 5:29 AM on July 18, 2018


Anyway, women no longer die of childbed fever; instead, we die of puerperal fever

The OED lists the first use of "puerperal fever" as 1716, versus 1701 for "childbed fever", and says both are now chiefly historical. I think "postpartum infection" is the modern term.

Google n-grams suggests that 'postpartum' largely replaced 'puerperal' in the 20th Century.

Emphysema is an old term for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Although it was used relatively recently, it is now in disuse.

The patient information from the American Lung Association, the Mayo Clinic, and NHS Choices all refer to COPD as a group of conditions of which emphysema is one. The latest Oxford Textbook of Medicine entry (re-evaluated as up to date 2014) agrees:
COPD is a group of lung conditions—chronic bronchitis (a chronic productive cough on most days for 3 months, in each of two consecutive years), small-airway disease (obstructive bronchiolitis), and emphysema (abnormal, permanent enlargement of the air spaces, distal to the terminal bronchioles, accompanied by destruction of their walls) that are present to a variable extent in different individuals resulting in heterogeneous presentations of the condition.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 6:01 AM on July 18, 2018


Mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis was once known as 'scrofula' or 'The King's Evil', because it was believed to be curable by the touch the king of England or France. The royal touch is no longer the standard of care.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:41 AM on July 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Palsy, which formerly was used a generic term for paralysis that is accompanied with tremors. Though palsy is still used, it almost exclusively appears in conjunction with a specific modifier, e.g., cerebral palsy, Bell's palsy.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 11:17 AM on July 18, 2018


My grandfather was said to 'have nerves" meaning anxiety and depression.
posted by mmf at 6:43 PM on July 18, 2018


I'm pretty sure that somewhere in Ulysses there's a reference to a carbuncle, which is basically a boil. The term is not officially obsolete, but when's the last time you heard it? I had a weird boil a year or two ago and delighted in calling it a carbuncle.
posted by swheatie at 11:52 AM on July 19, 2018


Sugar for diabetes. My grandmother's generation didn't have diabetes, they had sugar(s).
posted by TravellingCari at 12:40 PM on July 19, 2018


The term is not officially obsolete, but when's the last time you heard it?

About a week ago, when I was the circulating nurse for the excision of a carbuncle. Sucker was the size of a softball.
posted by jesourie at 10:38 PM on July 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Summer catarrh was seasonal allergies.

Nervous breakdown could mean anything, from depression, schizophrenia, having committed a crime but being too high status to be charged to a psychotic break.

Feminine complaints and disorders were often referred to with that oblique phrase leaving you none the wiser as to if the problem was endometriosis, chronic miscarriage, prolapse, unwillingness to have sex with her husband, vaginal infection, a fistula, fetal malpresentation... Whatever it was, it was something that men didn't get and that was all the information you were given.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:26 PM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


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