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10 Diseases That Used To Be Called Something Else

by Hannah McDonald
fact checked by Jamie Frater

When we think of diseases throughout human history, certain images commonly come to mind: a tragic heroine coughing blood into a white handkerchief, peg-legged pirates suffering from scurvy, piles of corpses carted away while children hold hands and solemnly chant “Ring Around the Rosie,” white-haired men sitting in bed wearing head bandages and covered in leeches. And what kinds of words come to mind? “The plague?” “Consumption?” “Dropsy?” But what were these diseases exactly, and what happened to them?

With the advance of technology, some old-time diseases are well and truly dead. For example, the 33rd World Health Assembly made an official announcement on May 8, 1980, declaring that naturally occurring smallpox had been eradicated worldwide. Other diseases, such as polio, have been significantly reduced. Worldwide polio cases declined by more than 99 percent between 1998 and 2013. Now, 80 percent of the world’s population lives in so-called “polio-free” areas, according to the CDC.[1] Other diseases, however, have never left us and continue to be a scourge on humanity—albeit under different names than during the days of yore.

10 Then: Consumption
Now: Tuberculosis

In 2016, the United States saw its lowest number of reported TB cases ever. But worldwide, it is still one of the top ten causes of death, and more than 95 percent of cases occur in developing countries. Though tuberculosis is known mostly for causing a bloody cough, “consumption” actually refers to another symptom—severe weight loss—and the way sufferers appear to be “consumed” by the disease.[2] The term “consumption,” or at least an ancient Greek version of it, first appeared around 460 BC in the writings of Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic oath).

You may have heard the word “tuber” in relation to potatoes, and no one could blame you for not making a connection between potatoes and tuberculosis. Yet, it’s true: The Latin word tuber, which means “lump” or “swelling,” is used to describe both certain structures in plant species as well as this famous disease, due to the fact that it causes small, hard swellings on infected organs such as the lungs. Though TB has been around since ancient times, the term “tuberculosis” has only been around since 1860.

9 Then: The Black Death
Now: Bubonic Plague

Few historical diseases are quite as infamous as the Black Death. Estimates of the number of fatalities vary widely, with some counts as high as 200 million in the 14th century alone. Nightmarish stories of the Black Death abound, including one account by an Italian writer who described layers of human bodies separated by thin layers of earth, “just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.” Though it was referred to as the Black Death, people at the time did not know it was caused by bacteria carried by black rats and their fleas. Unlike brown or gray rats, black rats prefer to live close to people, and those rats’ fleas needed new hosts once their rodent hosts had died.

Now this disease is known as bubonic plague, named for the swollen lymph nodes (or “buboes”) in the groin, armpit, or neck that serve as a telltale sign of infection.[3] While the plague may be the most old-timey-sounding disease on this list, the World Health Organization states that there were 320 reported cases of the bubonic plague worldwide in 2015, resulting in 77 deaths. 

8 Then: Hysteria
Now: Any Number Of Things

These days, “hysterical” is a word typically used to describe something that is funny. It is used less often to mean “uncontrollably emotional,” even though this is the original meaning of the word. Going back even further, the word “hysterical” comes from the Latin hystera, meaning “womb.” It is the same root for the word “hysterectomy,” the surgical procedure in which the uterus is removed. Why would the word for “uterus” give birth to a word that describes a state of extreme emotional disturbance?

Throughout history, hysteria was thought to be a uniquely female problem, a product of women’s inferiority to men, beginning in ancient Egypt and persisting for thousands of years across numerous societies. Any unexplained issue in a woman’s health was chalked up to “hysteria.” Sometimes, an ostensibly scientific explanation was given. Hippocrates believed the uterus was a free-floating organ that would migrate about the body, causing havoc wherever it went. Other times, hysteria was simply blamed on witchcraft or demonic possession.[4] Orgasms were considered a fitting treatment for hysteria, a belief which eventually led to advent of the modern vibrator.

7 Then: The Falling Sickness
Now: Epilepsy

Historically, “the falling sickness,” a name which appeared in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is one of the kinder ways of describing the seizure disorder now known as epilepsy. Like hysteria, it was often attributed to more sinister causes, such as insanity, witchcraft, or demonic possession. In antiquity, it was also referred to as “the sacred disease” or described as divine—not because it was considered a blessing but because it was considered supernatural in nature, a curse inflicted by an angry god or a devil. However, as long ago as 400 BC, the Greek text On the Sacred Disease asserted that epilepsy was natural and not divine in origin. 

As is so often the case, the terminology we use for the disease today comes from a Greek word, this time epilambanem, which means “to seize or take hold of.”[5] Though a seizure can be an extremely frightening event to witness (and, of course, experience) most people are now aware that seizures are caused by a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain, as opposed to witchcraft or devilry. 

6 Then: The Clap
Now: Gonorrhea

Let’s not beat around the bush. Many people have already heard the gruesome origin story of “the clap” as a term for gonorrhea. (Read no further if you haven’t, especially if you are squeamish.) It is said that “the clap” referred to a treatment of sorts for gonorrhea that worked by “clapping” the penis between two hard surfaces so as to expel discharge from the urethra. Technically, this is just a theory, and there are others that are much less nauseating. One is that it actually comes from the French word clapier, a term used to refer to a brothel. Another is that it comes from the Old English word “clappan,” meaning “to throb.”[6]

The origin of the word “gonorrhea,” on the other hand, is significantly less interesting. It comes from the Greek root “gono-,” related to reproduction (think “gonad”), and “-rrhea,” meaning flow or discharge. Though unpleasant, gonorrhea is preventable and treatable; unfortunately, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is currently a major public health concern.

5 Then: Dropsy
Now: Edema

Detail on the exact origin of the word “dropsy” is scarce. It is thought to come from the Middle English “dropesie,” which can be traced back to the Greek hydrops.[7] While the word “dropsy” might conjure images of klutziness or fainting, the key part here is not the “drops” but rather the “hydro.” “Dropsy” refers to swelling caused by excess fluid in the body and, therefore, is better described by the more modern term “edema” (also Greek in origin).

It is difficult to write succinctly about edema, as it can happen for many reasons and in many places in the body. It can describe the swelling that results from a mosquito bite and also the swelling that can indicate congestive heart failure or head trauma. How it is treated depends on its underlying cause.

4 Then: Various
Now: Syphilis

Syphilis is a disease that has gone by many names. In fact, historically, regions would name the disease based on whomever they blamed for its prevalence in their own population: Russians called it “the Polish disease,” the Polish called it “the German disease,” the Portuguese called it “the Spanish disease,” and so on. In the horrific, infamous, and formerly secret “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” experiment, the US Public Health Service told the 600 African American males recruited for the study that they were being treated for “bad blood,” though no treatment was ever rendered.

Oddly enough, the term “syphilis” is not much more scientific than the other terms once used to describe it. The term originates from an epic poem written in 1530 about a mythical shepherd who is given the disease by an angry god.[8] The actual origin of the disease itself is unknown. What is known about syphilis is that it is a sexually transmitted infection that begins with painless sores. Without treatment, can advance to much more serious complications, such as neurosyphilis and ocular syphilis. Once syphilis spreads to the brain or eyes, it can cause severe headaches, paralysis, dementia, and blindness. Luckily, syphilis can be prevented with condoms and treated with antibiotics, though it can be hard to detect, due to those aforementioned painless sores and the fact that they disappear on their own as the disease progresses.

3 Then: GRID

HIV is the most recent disease on this list, yet it, too, was poorly understood when it was first observed. Its name now, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, refers to the fact that it is a virus that affects the immune system of humans. But back in 1982, The New York Times ran an article on so-called “gay-related immunodeficiency,” or GRID, titled “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials.” At the time, this article also acknowledged that some of those affected were heterosexual men and women, often intravenous drug users. Nevertheless, the term GRID was used because of the disease’s prevalence among gay men.

“GRID” was a short-lived name. That same year, the CDC began using the more accurate term “AIDS.”[9] Now, “AIDS” is used to refer to the most advanced stage of HIV infection. Persons who are infected but do not yet have AIDS are said to have HIV, a term put forth by the International Committee of the Taxonomy of Viruses in 1986. 

2 Then: Shell Shock

Photo credit: H.D. Girdwood

This one is a disorder, not a disease, but there are physical aspects to its presentation. PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder, is a disorder that can affect a person exposed to death, serious injury, sexual violence, or the threat of any of the above. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, which is used to diagnose mental disorders, even states that it can result from indirect experience (such as when a close relative is exposed to a traumatic event) or from “indirect exposure to aversive details” of a traumatic event (such as “professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse”). It is characterized by intrusive symptoms such as flashbacks or nightmares, avoidance of trauma-related stimuli, negative thoughts and emotions, hypervigilance, and sometimes aggressive or self-destructive behavior, among other things.

PTSD is commonly associated with combat trauma specifically, and previous terminology defined it exclusively as an affliction of those who fought in wars. In the early 20th century, “shell shock” was more heavily defined by its physical symptoms—tremor, fatigue, and perceptual abnormalities—than by its mental or behavioral ones. While the “shell” portion referred to projectiles containing explosive charges, the “shock” portion referred to the lingering effects on people exposed to such weaponry. It was first thought to be a brain injury caused by blast force, but in time, researchers noticed similar symptoms among soldiers who had not been near exploding shells. These soldiers’ symptoms could not be explained by concussive trauma, but they could be explained by exposure to the many horrors and stressors of war.[10]

1 Then: Apoplexy
Now: Stroke

Hippocrates strikes yet again, as he is credited with first recognizing strokes more than 2,400 years ago. At that time, he used the word “apoplexy,” meaning “struck down by violence.”[11] (Today, “apoplectic” can also be used to describe someone who is enraged.) The connection between the Greek root and the current term is obvious. One who has been struck has had a stroke. 

“Stroke” is the term used today, though other terms may be used. Some prefer “cerebrovascular accident,” although its use has been discouraged due to its suggestion that a stroke “is a chance event for which little can be done.” “Brain attack” is favored by some, as it conveys a sense of urgency, similar to “heart attack.” Essentially, a stroke occurs when the flow of blood to a portion of the brain is blocked, resulting in brain cell death, so swift treatment is crucial. 

Hannah lives in Seattle with her husband and dogs. She enjoys researching and writing.


fact checked by Jamie Frater