English is a funny language, an amalgam of many other languages, and always in evolution. Daily, we use words that make no sense, without even noticing it. Most of these misnomers made sense originally, and the words have hung on, even after our knowledge, or the thing itself, have changed. For example, when you press wrinkles out of clothes, you use an iron, but it is certainly no longer made of iron. We know shooting stars to be meteors, not stars, and we know lightning bugs (or fireflies) have no lightning or fire, but they have the same name. Blackboards are no longer black and the chalk we use to write on them is actually gypsum. I could go on.

The same phenomenon exists in medicine.

Varicella is commonly called Chicken Pox, yet it has nothing to do with chickens. Medical writing as far back as 1500s described chicken pox as a mild form of smallpox (the understanding then), in India, China, Egypt, and England. The most accepted theory for the name is that the early small blisters looked like chickpeas, “chiche pois” in Middle French. Others felt it was because the small dots looked like pecks from a chicken. Samuel Johnson, however, wrote in his 1755 dictionary, that the name came from the fact that the illness was not severe, like smallpox, and inconsequential, like a little chicken. Anglo-Indian dictionaries from India of the 1800s describe chicken stakes in betting as small stakes, and a chicken nabob as someone with just a small fortune. So perhaps chicken was already established as a way to describe something small. So, chicken pox as opposed to the great pox.

Athlete’s foot was first described in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928, after increasing incidence of tinea infections in feet during WWI. The makers of Absorbine Jr dispute this, and claim they coined the term as part of an advertising campaign in the 1930s. In their eyes, it was clearly better to have an infection often seen in fit, energetic athletes than something related to uncleanliness, or soldiers in trenches. It turns out, athlete’s foot is common in anyone wearing closed shoes, especially with socks, which keep the feet moist. But this name just lets you feel better about having it!

Ringworm has been with us since early mammals were on the planet and has been described in humans in ancient papyrus writings as far back as second century BC. Worms are not involved. It is unclear where the term ringworm originated, but one good possibility is Daniel Turner’s 1714 book on skin diseases. He likens the damage done by ringworm of the scalp to damage to fabric done by the moth worm. It has been known to be caused by a fungus since the early 1800s, yet we still call it ringworm, due to its circular raised shape. But happily, you can be assured there is no worm to extract!

The word artery is derived from the ancient Greek work “arteria” which means “to keep air”. Arteries tend to fill with air in cadavers, so it was not initially understood that arteries are usually full of blood. After Vesalius in the 1500s and Harvey in the 1600s further described the circulatory system, it was understood that arteries were connected to the venous system and carried blood. But we still call them “air keepers”.

Infectious mononucleosis (mono) is a viral infection, with sore throat, malaise, fever, and enlarged lymph nodes and spleen. You may know it as the “kissing disease”. It has as its hallmark an elevated number of white cells called atypical lymphocytes in the blood. The name has led to confusion for generations of medical students, because it is not the monocytes in the blood that are increased, it is the lymphocytes (Which happen to be mononuclear.). Could we stick with the old name of glandular fever, or the new name of EBV (Epstein Barr Virus) infection?

So, the next time you’re feeling modern and up to date, especially if you are practicing medicine, remember these everyday medical terms that are holdovers from the past.