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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March 15, 2013 - 4:00pm
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