Translating Olde Medical Terms

John Wayne in 1937
John Wayne in 1937

Okay, so I am watching an old western movie with John Wayne. His buddy was shot and the old alcohol ridden doc arrives on the scene. Looks at his eyes, listens to his chest, opens his black bag and pulls out a metal thingy, taps the man. The Doc glances up at a young Wayne.

"How long he's been this way"? he asks. "Well, that's just it Doc. Hell if I know. I just got here, I gave him a little whiskey to ease the pain", Wayne responds. Doc looks at his wound.

"He's got mortification, real bad". Wayne scratches his head (as I, the viewer does), "You mean he's dead"?, Wayne asks. "Nope", Doc responds. The two men look at one another. "I thought a big word like that meant he's dead", Wayne states. The Doc laughs. "I mean, he's got gangrene, gut rot". Wayne dusts off his pants, "Hell, why didn't you just say that?".

If you find moments like these when old medical terms are spouted out by doctors from eons ago in a movie, below is a translated list:

  • Ague - Malaria
  • Brain Fever - Meningitis
  • Catarrh - mucous discharge from nose to throat- causes a tickle and cough
  • Consumption - Tuberculosis
  • Grippe - the Flu
  • Humid Tetter - Eczema
  • Ship\Jail Fever - Typhus
  • Lues - Syphillis
  • Morphew - severe case of lack of Vitamin C
  • Podagra - Gout
  • Stopping - Constipation
  • Variola - Smallpox

Just like many other words, time makes many words of one generation obsolete. For instance, knickers. A very common word back between 1900-1940, although, by 1940, it was not used much. Ask anyone whose parents did not use the word and they are clueless. I recall my dad using it a few times. Knickers are today's Capri pants or Board shorts. Knickers, were worn by men, they were baggy pants with a length to mid-calf.

As times change, so does a language.

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Comments 4 comments

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

This is quite interesting and I didn't know some of the terms meant what you wrote. I always ask my doctor to explain terms I am unfamiliar with so that I can understand my condition. Guess this would have helped back then also.


perrya profile image

perrya 4 years ago Author

Thanks, I agree. Some of the medical terms are odd.


JasonL99 profile image

JasonL99 4 years ago

Does anybody still get Variola?


perrya profile image

perrya 4 years ago Author

What is it?

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