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17 Bizarre Work-Related Ailments

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If you spend all day at work hunched over a computer keyboard, chances are at some point you’ll have complained about something like a bad neck, a bad head, or sore eyes. If you spend all day walking around, you’ll probably want nothing more than to take the weight off your aching feet when you get home at night. And if you’re a conscientious student, or if you spend all your working day scribbling down notes with a pen and paper, you might even have suffered from a bit of task-specific focal dystonia—better known as writer’s cramp. But complaints like these are nothing compared to some of the more bizarre, more dangerous, and more unpleasant occupational hazards and ailments that people have suffered from in history, the names and origins of 17 of which are explained here.

1. BAKER’S KNEE

Baker’s knee is a skeletal condition that causes the legs to bend inward toward each other, until, according to one nineteenth century dictionary, they “closely resemble the right side of the letter K.” It was once common among bakers, who would typically have to put all of their weight on only one leg when carrying heavy breadbaskets.

2. CHAUFFEUR’S FRACTURE

Before some bright spark came up with the idea of starting cars from the inside, early automobiles had to be hand-cranked from the outside using a starter’s handle connected directly to the front of the engine. One of the consequences, though, was that the vehicle could suddenly backfire, jerking the handle backwards into the hand of the person starting it and causing a painful fracture of the radius known as a “chauffeur’s fracture.”

3. CHIMNEYSWEEP’S SCROTUM

As if life as a Victorian chimneysweep wasn’t unpleasant enough, sometimes it was apparently necessary for sweeps to take off all their clothes to clamber into the smallest of soot-filled crawlspaces and flues. And as if that wasn’t unpleasant enough, the carcinogens found in soot could irritate the, y’know, most delicate area of the chimneysweep’s anatomy and eventually cause a form of cancer called “chimneysweep’s scrotum,” or more euphemistically, “soot-wart.” Weirdly, this has the unusual distinction of being the first occupational disease ever documented.

4. CLERGYMAN’S KNEE

A bursa is a small sac of fluid that cushions the bones and tendons of a joint. In bursitis, this sac becomes inflamed, often very painfully. And in infrapatellar bursitis, it’s the bursa just below the kneecap that is affected. This particular form of bursitis is nicknamed “clergyman’s knee” because it’s often caused by all of a person’s bodyweight being concentrated on the lowest point of the knee when they kneel down, just like a clergyman praying in church.

5. COBBLER’S FEMUR

The problem with hammering the soles of shoes in your lap all day, every day, for a lifetime is that the hammering causes dozens of tiny, painless fractures to open up in your thighbones. The body is more than capable of healing such small fractures itself simply by re-growing more bone—but when it does that constantly over decades and decades of work, the result can be a pretty nasty-looking bony growth called “cobbler’s femur.”

6. FIDDLER’S NECK

Playing too much violin can cause a localized inflammation of the part of the neck that the violin rests against, a condition called “fiddler’s neck.” It’s usually only caused by friction and pressure, but sometimes—especially when the fiddler is using older instruments—the condition can be the result of a bacterial or fungal infection, which can have particularly unpleasant consequences if left untreated.

7. GAMEKEEPER’S THUMB

“Gamekeeper’s thumb” is caused by damage to the ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament that attaches the bone at the base of the thumb to the rest of the hand. It was first described in the 1950s when a number of cases were identified among Scottish gamekeepers who would dispatch of larger game, like rabbits, by pinning them down and breaking their necks between the thumb and forefinger. This would put so much pressure on the ligament at the base of the thumb that it would tear, causing a particularly painful injury.

8. GLASSBLOWER’S CATARACT

Heating up glass or molten metal in a furnace can release small amounts of radiation that, in the days long before protective eyewear, would be absorbed by the glassblower’s eyes and eventually form a “glassblower’s cataract.” The same condition was once also common among blacksmiths and foundry workers.

9. HATTER’S SHAKES

When Lewis Carroll invented The Mad Hatter, he wasn’t entirely making it up. Back in the nineteenth century, mercuric nitrate was used in the production of the felt used in making hats, and this meant that hatmakers risked prolonged exposure to mercury vapors. These could eventually cause all kinds of physical and psychological problems, including a chronic trembling of the muscles known as “hatter’s shakes.”

10. HOUSEMAID’S KNEE

Back when grand Victorian houses had Victorian housemaids, they spent a lot of their Victorian time kneeling on hard Victorian floorboards. This could often cause a condition called prepatellar bursitis or “housemaid’s knee,” an inflammation of the bursa that cushions the front of the kneecap—similar to, but slightly higher than, clergyman’s knee.

11. PAINTER’S COLIC

While the mercury used in felt-making was sending hat-makers mad, the lead used in paint was causing chronic constipation amongst painters and paint manufacturers, which could eventually become so bad that it could cause a painful digestive condition known as colica pictorum, or “painter’s colic.” A form of lead poisoning, the disease was also once nicknamed “Devonshire colic,” after a number of people in Devon in the far southwest of England contracted it from the lead used to clean local cider presses in the 17th century.

12. STUDENT’S ELBOW

Olecranon bursitis is an inflammation of the olecranon, the outside point of the elbow. It can be caused by nothing more than the pressure that comes from leaning on desks while reading or studying, so, as well as being nicknamed “plumber’s elbow” and “miner’s elbow,” it’s probably best known as “student’s elbow.”

13. TAILOR’S BUNION

A tailor’s bunion is an inflammation of the bone at the base of the little toe, which causes a hard and often very painful growth to emerge. The condition was once traditionally common among tailors, who would spend a great deal of time working with fabric while sitting cross-legged on the floor, causing the outside of their feet to rub against the ground.

14. and 15. TROMBONE-PLAYER’S LUNG and HORN-PLAYER’S PALSY

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is a catch-all medical term for inflammation of the lungs caused by inhaling bacteria-riddled dust, vapor, or air—and if those bacteria come from the inside of a brass instrument, then you’ve contracted trombone-player’s lung [PDF]. You won’t be alone, though—different forms of the same condition, varying only in the type of bacteria involved, include “sauna worker’s lung,” “bird-fancier’s lung,” “pigeon-breeder’s long,” “cheese-washer’s lung,” and “snuff-taker’s lung.” But as if that weren’t bad enough for brass players, there’s always the chance that you might come down with “horn-player’s palsy”—a form of facial paralysis caused by the nerves of the face being damaged by the high air pressures needed to play instruments like trumpets and trombones.

16. WEAVER’S BOTTOM

Sitting on hard wooden chairs weaving all day can cause ischial bursitis, a painful inflammation of the sac or bursa that cushions the ischium bone in the hip, known as “weaver’s bottom.”

17. WOOLSORTER’S DISEASE

AKA “rag-picker’s disease” or “sheepshearer’s lung,” woolsorter’s disease actually doesn’t sound too bad when compared to its proper name, pulmonary anthrax. First noticed among Yorkshire sheepshearers in the early nineteenth century, woolsorter’s disease is caused by inhaling the bacteria that naturally occur in sheep’s fleeces—which, unfortunately for the woolsorters, sometimes included bacillus anthracis, or anthrax. The disease caused respiratory failure, as well as problems to the lymphatic system, and was more often than not fatal.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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