Words at Play

A Word for What Ails You

Some old-fashioned names for diseases sound worse than others.


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Grippe can be any kind of contagious viral disease, but traditionally it was used for what we now call influenza.

There came pneumonia and grippe, stalking among them, seeking for weakened constitutions; there was the annual harvest of those whom tuberculosis had been dragging down.
— Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906

Grippe in French literally means "seizure" and is related to the verb gripper ("to grab or seize").

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Ague is the term for an infectious fever marked by regular paroxysms of chills and sweating.

Oliver's ailings were neither slight nor few. In addition to the pain and delay attendant on a broken limb, his exposure to the wet and cold had brought on fever and ague: which hung about him for many weeks, and reduced him sadly.
— Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1839

The word is historically associated with the feverish symptoms that accompany malaria, in which red blood cells are attacked by a parasite transmitted by the anopheles mosquito.

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Consumption is another term for what is more commonly described as tuberculosis, a lung disease caused typically by the tubercle bacillus.

"Cough! you don't need to tell me about a cough. I've always been subject to a cough, all my days. When I was of Eva's age, they thought I was in a consumption. Night after night, Mammy used to sit up with me. O! Eva's cough is not anything."
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852

The name is given to the fact that the disease would lead to a wasting away of the body.

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The name which Joe had given to his master's illness was certainly not a false one. He did find Sir Louis "in the horrors." If any father have a son whose besetting sin is a passion for alcohol, let him take his child to the room of a drunkard when possessed by "the horrors." Nothing will cure him if not that.
— Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne, 1858

Historically, the plural noun horrors has referred to two distinct ailments: a shuddering or shivering as symptomatic of a fever, or a fit of depression or fright as occurs with mental delirium.

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Not as fun as it sounds, quinsy is the symptom of painful abscess in the tissue around a tonsil that accompanies more severe forms of tonsillitis.

Even his voice was gentle. He'd had the quinsy and swollen glands when he was young, he told me, and it had left him with a weak throat, and a hesitating, whispering fashion of speech.
— Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Case of Identity," 1891

Quinsy traces back through Middle English, Anglo-French, and Late Latin to the Greek words for "dog" (kyōn) and "strangle" (anchein).

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Saint Vitus's dance is another name for chorea, a disorder marked by involuntary spasms of the limbs and facial muscles.

We build our churches almost without regard to cost; we rear an edifice which is an adornment to the town, and we gild it, and fresco it, and mortgage it, and do everything we can think of to perfect it, and then spoil it all by putting a bell on it which afflicts everybody who hears it, giving some the headache, others St. Vitus's dance, and the rest the blind staggers.
— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

St. Vitus (c. 290-c. 303) was a Sicilian martyr and is considered the patron saint of dancers and entertainers. His feast day is held on June 15 and celebrated by dancing in front of his statue. The term chorea itself borrows from the Latin for "dance" and is related to the Greek word for "chorus."

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Apoplexy is a now-dated term for what we now call a stroke, or the bleeding of an organ from hemorrhage. Both types of ailments were usually accompanied by a sudden loss of consciousness, as though the person was knocked out cold. So it makes sense that apoplexy derives from the Greek apoplēssein, from apo- ("completely") and plēssein ("to strike").

"'The governor is dying,' were the first words he said.

"'Impossible!' I cried. 'What is the matter?'

"'Apoplexy. Nervous shock, He's been on the verge all day. I doubt if we shall find him alive.'
— Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the 'Gloria Scott,'" 1893

Nowadays we are more likely to find apoplexy (or its adjectival form apoplectic) describing extreme or uncontrollable anger.

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Croup is an obstruction caused by swelling of the larynx, trachea, and bronchi that occurs in children as a result of a virus and is, by definition, "marked by episodes of difficult breathing and low-pitched cough resembling the bark of a seal."

"Don't cry, Di," said Anne cheerily. "I know exactly what to do for croup. You forget that Mrs. Hammond had twins three times. When you look after three pairs of twins you naturally get a lot of experience. They all had croup regularly. Just wait till I get the ipecac bottle--you mayn't have any at your house. Come on now."
— Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908

In English dialect, croup means " to cry hoarsely" or "to cough" and was likely coined to imitate the sound of coughing.

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Dropsy is another name for edema, the abnormal swelling of tissues from a buildup of fluid.

We can't even eat, long. If we indulge in harmless fluids, we get the dropsy; if in exciting liquids, we get drunk. What a soothing reflection is that!'
— Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844

Dropsy sounds like it might suggesting the "drooping" of swollen tissue, but in fact it was formed from Latin and Middle English alterations of the Greek noun hydrōps, from the noun hydōr, meaning "water."

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Lockjaw is another name for tetanus—the disease to which you're susceptible when you cut yourself on a rusty nail.

Captain Hardy stuck a nail in his foot the 6th of July of the next year, and died of the lockjaw on the 15th.
— Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883

The name alludes to one of the more severe early symptoms that accompany tetanus—the spasm of the muscles in the jaw, preventing its opening and closure, and particularly the masseter muscle used in chewing.




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