275: Folk Illnesses and Medical Terms


The Doctor exhibited 1891 Sir Luke Fildes 1843-1927 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01522

This is by no means an exhaustive list of folk illnesses and medical terminology associated with the Ozark and Appalachian peoples. With the advent of the country doctor and quack medicine shows we also see the influence of “higher end” medical terms seen in books like The Complete Herbalist and The People’s Home Library upon the language of the common people. While these books weren’t really available to those in rural areas, they did help create the home remedy pamphlet that would have certainly been available to folks at the local drug store, and medical books like this also left their mark on the American Almanac, another staple of the hillman’s cabin. Terms like “apoplexy,” “dyspepsia,” “cholera morbus,” and “catarrh,” were rarely heard before the advent of the home medical books and the influence of more “modern” medical practices.

For more information visit A Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and Causes of Death online.

Ague: Malarial fever, or sometimes this refers to just a high fever.

Bad Blood: Euphemism for syphilis.

Blood Thinner: Euphemism for a laxative.

Bold Hives: An often fatal form of hives usually only affecting children. The hives must be “broken out” before they “turn inward” and shut down body functions.

Breakbone Fever: Another name for dengue fever. It may also refer to a very high and persistent fever. The word “breakbone” refers to the joint and muscle pains that accompany the fever.

Builds Blood: Helps with energy, anemia.

Childbed Fever: Bacterial infections (often accompanied by fever) that appear in the female reproductive tract following birth or miscarriage. Also known as “puerperal fever”.

Cleans the Body: Euphemism for a laxative.

Clears the Blood: Euphemism for a laxative.

Favus: Dermatitis infection of the scalp, usually characterized by patches of inflamed, scaly skin. From the Latin for “honeycomb”.

Felon: A soft tissue infection of the finger tip. Often related to “whitlow”.

Flux: Severe diarrhea.

Flooding: Unknown gynecological issue.

Fright: Illness associated with being scared.

Goomered: Refers to witchcraft or “goomering”.

Grippe: Another word for influenza. From the French.

High Blood: Refers to high blood pressure or to the physical position of blood in body. The person is often characterized by being overweight and sluggish.

Itch, The: “The Itch” often refers to scabies.

Liver Growed: Illness where a baby is seen to not be functioning properly. It was thought that the liver had attached to the body wall because of some trauma (carriages and wagons were often blamed). Often cured by shaking the child.

Live Things: Insects, reptiles, or sometimes small mammals that are put into a person by a witch as a way of hurting or killing that person. The victim unknowingly eats a bone or some skin of the animal causing the sickness. Often cured using strong emetics.

Loss of Nature: Euphemism for low or impaired sexual drive.

Loss of Courage: Euphemism for impotency.

Low Blood: Refers to low blood pressure or to the physical position of blood below the heart. The person is often characterized by being anemic and weak.

Milk Sickness: A condition of cattle and sheep in the western US, caused by eating white snakeroot, which contains a toxic alcohol. It sometimes occurs in humans who have eaten meat or dairy products from affected animals.

Piles: Swollen veins in the rectum.

Scald Head:  A common name for Porrigo, or ringworm of the scalp.

Seven Year Itch: Most likely refers to a STD like scabies.

Spelt / Spelled: Illness derived from having a spell or witchcraft put on you.

Spring Tonic: Often mild laxatives like sassafras that help “get the body moving” after a winter eating poor food.

Summer Complaint: Also called “summer diarrhea” this is a mysterious summertime illness characterized by high fever and bowel complaints. It usually only effects children. Can be deadly.

Tetter: Skin disease characterized by an itchy rash.

Thrash: Also called “thrush”, a yeast infection of the mouth characterized by red and white sore patches that mostly affects children and is cured most often by a “thrash blower” or “thrash doctor,” a man who has never seen his father, who is able to “blow” out thrush from the mouth.

Tisick: Refers to “phthisic,” a wasting disease of the lungs. Also seen as a “tisic” which is the medicine taken for the illness.

Tonic: A medicine that is thought to generally help all the organs and systems of the body. Usually only taken for a short amount of time. See “spring tonic”.

White Livered: Mysterious disease connected to sex. Likely a reference to a STD. It may have a supernatural cause as with the famed “white-livered widders”.

Whitlow: A herpes viral infection that results in a painful blistery eruption on one of the digits.

Source: 275: Folk Illnesses and Medical Terms


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