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7 Antiquated Illness Names and Their Meanings

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Throughout the ages, people have hung some pretty weird names on what’s ailed them. While many diseases took their monikers from a primitive understanding of the human body and the burgeoning scientific practice of using Latin and Greek nomenclature as the basis of medicine, others emerged colloquially as, more or less, the symptoms the affliction presented. Here are a few of the stranger ones, and how we know them today.

1. Then: Dropsy
Now: Edema

Essentially water retention, edema mainly afflicts those with congestive heart failure whose bodies are unable to eliminate fluid effectively. The archaic term originated in the Middle English “dropesie” via the Old French “hydropsie” via the Greek “hydrops” via the ancient Greek “hydor,” which means, you guessed it, water. Leave it to Shakespearean times to make something as silly-sounding as possible.

2. Then: Black Death
Now: Bubonic Plague

To be fair, even “Bubonic Plague” has a ring of whimsy, but there was nothing humorous (no pun intended) about it. Among the most ravaging pandemics in human history, the Plague raged in Europe from 1348 to 1350 and is estimated to have killed nearly 100 million people. Historians now know that the disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted from rat to flea to human. “Bubonic” comes from the Greek word for “groin,” and was so named for the swollen groin lymph nodes that a plague victim would exhibit at its onset. It took on the conversational “black” designation in a poetic nod to the dread and mourning left in its wake. Then again, it could aptly have been a physical description of a late-stage victim, who’d likely be unconscious or delirious and suffering from bleeding under the skin and widespread gangrene, making their skin appear black.

3. Then: Dry Bellyache
Now: Lead poisoning

Before we knew just how toxic lead is to humans, it was used for centuries in the production of both paint and rum. When painters and distillers began presenting symptoms ranging from abdominal pain and headaches to anemia and seizures, doctors were baffled and dubbed the condition “Dry Bellyache” and “Painters Colic.” What they didn’t realize was that constant exposure to the heavy concentration of lead in pre-industrialized paint and in the stills used to make rum was slowly poisoning the workers. Fortunately, science caught on to its effects, and the use of lead in manufacturing has dropped dramatically over the past few decades. However, the EPA warns that it still presents a threat owing to old lead paint in houses, soil and water contamination from outdated lead-based fixtures, and the small amount of lead still used in products such as bullets, ceramic glaze, and vinyl mini window blinds. Just in case you needed another reason to avoid vinyl mini blinds.

4. Then: King’s Evil
Now: Scrofula

Tuberculosis may very well be one of mankind’s oldest maladies, with human remains from 4000 BC showing signs of tubercular decay. Long feared and, until the past century, poorly understood, the bacteria would wreak havoc on a person’s lung tissue, literally consuming it from the inside. Scrofula is, essentially, TB of the lymph nodes in the neck. In the Middle Ages, when kings were considered divine, many believed that royalty could cure disease with nothing more than their touch. The “King’s Evil” ceremony typically featured the monarch bestowing “touched” coins or amulets on the suffering, which they would then wear and hope to be cured. The practice was so common that, by the Restoration, Charles II is rumored to have touched some 90,000 consumptives in a 22 year period. Obviously, people still died in legion, but the custom persisted in England, and then France, for another 200 years. Give ’em a break. The learning curve was slower in those days.

5. Then: Scrivener’s Palsy
Now: Writer’s cramp

Long before we could just rest our hands on a keyboard and churn out page after page with little effort, writer’s cramp was a serious and sometimes debilitating condition. The most frequently afflicted were scriveners—those whose job it was to take dictations and keep records at a time when very few people knew how to read and write. As their numbers were so few, they were in high demand and, likely, overworked. Some scriveners would experience loss of precision muscle control in their hands, as well as weakness, pain, and trembling. Cases could be severe, with referred pain spreading to the arms, legs, and jaw, and sometimes lead to total disability. Though writer’s cramp is still with us, scientists have come to believe that, along with other focal dystonia, it’s the result of a neurological malfunction that affects specific muscle groups. Local Botox injections have been shown to ease symptoms, with the added bonus of ageless-looking hands.

6. Then: Milk Leg
Now: Phlegmasia alba dolens

Also known as deep vein thrombosis, this condition was, and still is, seen often later in pregnancy and in women who have recently given birth. Sometimes, as the uterus enlarges in preparation for delivery, the common iliac vein—which runs from the lower abdomen to the upper thigh—will press against the pelvis and cause a blood clot to form. If the condition persists, normal circulation becomes impossible and the leg will swell painfully. The dairy designation may have caught on because of the pale color the leg will take (phlegmasia alba dolens translates to “painful white edema”), or because the swelling was thought to be an accumulation of milk in the expectant mother’s limb, a now-laughable idea.

7. Then: Dancing Mania
Now: Mass psychogenic illness

Sounds awesome, right? From the 14th to 17th century in Europe, thousands of people were suddenly and without reason moved to dance uncontrollably with little regard to how ridiculous they looked. What’s really changed, you ask? Well, at the height of the phenomenon, choreomania (from the Greek “choros” for dance and “mania” for madness) was known to waylay both men and women, children and the elderly, who would form groups and scream, sing, and dance for days on end until they’d collapse from exhaustion or, occasionally, dance themselves to death. Diagnoses throughout the ages have included epilepsy and Sydenham chorea, a side effect of the Streptococcus bacteria. Historians now generally agree that the movement was a mass psychogenic illness, a form of mass hysteria, in which a group exhibits similar physical symptoms because of social influence that have no recognizable physical cause. And all this without the help of Beiber.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.


As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."


The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

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Of Buckeyes and Butternuts: 29 States With Weird Nicknames for Their Residents

Tracing a word’s origin and evolution can yield fascinating historical insights—and the weird nicknames used in some states to describe their residents are no exception. In the Mental Floss video above, host John Green explains the probable etymologies of 29 monikers that describe inhabitants of certain states across the country.

Some of these nicknames, like “Hoosiers” and “Arkies” (which denote residents of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively) may have slightly offensive connotations, while others—including "Buckeyes," "Jayhawks," "Butternuts," and "Tar Heels"—evoke the military histories of Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And a few, like “Muskrats” and “Sourdoughs,” are even inspired by early foods eaten in Delaware and Alaska. ("Goober-grabber" sounds goofier, but it at least refers to peanuts, which are a common crop in Georgia, as well as North Carolina and Arkansas.)

Learn more fascinating facts about states' nicknames for their residents by watching the video above.


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