17 Bizarre Work-Related Ailments

iStock.com/AaronAmat
iStock.com/AaronAmat

If you spend all day at work hunched over a computer keyboard, chances are at some point you’ll have complained about something like a bad neck, a bad head, or sore eyes. If you spend all day walking around, you’ll probably want nothing more than to take the weight off your aching feet when you get home at night. And if you’re a conscientious student, or if you spend your working day scribbling down notes with a pen and paper, you might even have suffered from a bit of task-specific focal dystonia—better known as writer’s cramp. But complaints like these are nothing compared to some of the more bizarre, dangerous, and unpleasant occupational hazards and ailments that people have suffered from in history, the names and origins of 17 of which are explained here.

1. Baker’s Knee

Baker’s knee is a skeletal condition that causes the legs to bend inward toward each other, until, according to one 19th century dictionary, they “closely resemble the right side of the letter K.” It was once common among bakers, who would typically have to put all of their weight on only one leg when carrying heavy breadbaskets.

2. Chauffeur’s Fracture

Before some bright spark came up with the idea of starting cars from the inside, early automobiles had to be hand-cranked from the outside using a starter’s handle connected directly to the front of the engine. One of the consequences, though, was that the vehicle could suddenly backfire, jerking the handle backwards into the hand of the person starting it and causing a painful fracture of the radius known as a “chauffeur’s fracture.”

3. Chimney Sweep’s Scrotum

As if life as a Victorian chimney sweep wasn’t unpleasant enough, sometimes it was apparently necessary for sweeps to take off all their clothes to clamber into the smallest of soot-filled crawlspaces and flues. And as if that wasn’t unpleasant enough, the carcinogens found in soot could irritate the, y’know, most delicate area of the chimney sweep’s anatomy and eventually cause a form of cancer called “chimney sweep’s scrotum,” or more euphemistically, “soot-wart.”

4. Clergyman’s Knee

A bursa is a small sac of fluid that cushions the bones and tendons of a joint. In bursitis, this sac becomes inflamed, often very painfully. And in infrapatellar bursitis, it’s the bursa just below the kneecap that is affected. This particular form of bursitis is nicknamed “clergyman’s knee” because it’s often caused by all of a person’s bodyweight being concentrated on the lowest point of the knee when they kneel down, just like a clergyman praying in church.

5. Cobbler’s Femur

The problem with hammering the soles of shoes in your lap all day, every day, for a lifetime is that the hammering causes dozens of tiny, painless fractures to open up in your thighbones. The body is more than capable of healing such small fractures itself simply by re-growing more bone—but when it does that constantly over decades and decades of work, the result can be a pretty nasty-looking bony growth called “cobbler’s femur.”

6. Fiddler’s Neck

Playing too much violin can cause a localized inflammation of the part of the neck that the violin rests against, a condition called “fiddler’s neck.” It’s usually only caused by friction and pressure, but sometimes—especially when the fiddler is using older instruments—the condition can be the result of a bacterial or fungal infection, which can have particularly unpleasant consequences if left untreated.

7. Gamekeeper’s Thumb

“Gamekeeper’s thumb” is caused by damage to the ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament that attaches the bone at the base of the thumb to the rest of the hand. It was first described in the 1950s when a number of cases were identified among Scottish gamekeepers who would dispatch of larger game, like rabbits, by pinning them down and breaking their necks between the thumb and forefinger. This would put so much pressure on the ligament at the base of the thumb that it would tear, causing a particularly painful injury.

8. Glassblower’s Cataract

Heating up glass or molten metal in a furnace can release small amounts of radiation that, in the days long before protective eyewear, would be absorbed by the glassblower’s eyes and eventually form a “glassblower’s cataract.” The same condition was once also common among blacksmiths and foundry workers.

9. Hatter’s Shakes

When Lewis Carroll invented The Mad Hatter, he wasn’t entirely making it up. Back in the 19th century, mercuric nitrate was used in the production of the felt used in making hats, and this meant that hatmakers risked prolonged exposure to mercury vapors. These could eventually cause all kinds of physical and psychological problems, including a chronic trembling of the muscles known as “hatter’s shakes.”

10. Housemaid’s Knee

Back when grand Victorian houses had Victorian housemaids, they spent a lot of their Victorian time kneeling on hard Victorian floorboards. This could often cause a condition called prepatellar bursitis or “housemaid’s knee,” an inflammation of the bursa that cushions the front of the kneecap—similar to, but slightly higher than, clergyman’s knee.

11. Painter’s Colic

While the mercury used in felt-making was sending hat-makers mad, the lead used in paint was causing chronic constipation among painters and paint manufacturers, which could eventually become so bad that it could cause a painful digestive condition known as colica pictorum, or “painter’s colic.” A form of lead poisoning, the disease was also once nicknamed “Devonshire colic,” after a number of people in Devon in the far southwest of England contracted it from the lead used in local cider presses in the 17th century.

12. Student’s Elbow

Olecranon bursitis is an inflammation of the olecranon, the outside point of the elbow. It can be caused by nothing more than the pressure that comes from leaning on desks while reading or studying, so, as well as being nicknamed “plumber’s elbow” and “miner’s elbow,” it’s probably best known as “student’s elbow.”

13. Tailor’s Bunion

A tailor’s bunion is an inflammation of the bone at the base of the little toe, which causes a hard and often very painful growth to emerge. The condition was once traditionally common among tailors, who would spend a great deal of time working with fabric while sitting cross-legged on the floor, causing the outside of their feet to rub against the ground.

14. and 15. Trombone-Player’s Lung and Horn-Player’s Palsy

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is a catch-all medical term for inflammation of the lungs caused by inhaling bacteria-riddled dust, vapor, or air—and if those bacteria come from the inside of a brass instrument, then you’ve contracted trombone-player’s lung. You won’t be alone, though—different forms of the same condition, varying only in the type of bacteria involved, include “sauna worker’s lung,” “bird-fancier’s lung,” “pigeon-breeder’s long,” “cheese-washer’s lung,” and “snuff-taker’s lung.” But as if that weren’t bad enough for brass players, there’s always the chance that you might come down with “horn-player’s palsy”—a form of facial paralysis caused by the nerves of the face being damaged by the high air pressures needed to play instruments like trumpets and trombones.

16. Weaver’s Bottom

Sitting on hard wooden chairs weaving all day can cause ischial bursitis, a painful inflammation of the sac or bursa that cushions the ischium bone in the hip, known as “weaver’s bottom.”

17. Wool-sorter’s Disease

Also known as “rag-picker’s disease” or “sheepshearer’s lung,” wool-sorter’s disease actually doesn’t sound too bad when compared to its proper name, pulmonary anthrax. First noticed among Yorkshire sheepshearers in the 19th century, wool-sorter’s disease is caused by inhaling the bacteria that naturally occur in sheep’s fleeces—which, unfortunately for the wool-sorters, sometimes included bacillus anthracis, or anthrax.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

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iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

15 Ripsniptious Faux-Educated Words of the 19th Century

London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

In his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, John Camden Hotten discussed a recent craze for long, fancy-sounding made-up words. These drew, loosely and creatively, on the prefixes and suffixes of educated big words to get their point across. “Nothing pleases an ignorant person,” he writes, “more than a high-sounding term ‘full of fury.’ How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations … what a ‘pull’ the sharp-nosed lodging-house keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disputing her charges, and threatening to ABSQUATULATE!”

Though an educated person could sneer at the "vulgar" corruption of Latin-inspired word formation rules, few could deny their delicious mouth-feel, the genius rhythm with which they rolled off the tongue. Most of the terms came and went in the way that slang does, but a few were so melodious and apt that they became a part of our permanent vocabulary. Here are 15 of the most ripsniptious faux-educated words of the period.

1. Absquatulate

This word, popular in the 1830s, meant to make off with something. It vaguely calls up abscond, but in a longer and more complicated way. There was also an alternate term absquatualize and the noun abscotchalater, meaning thief.

2. Rambunctious

This familiar term also emerged in the U.S. around 1830 and was probably formed off the earlier rumbustious.

3. Bloviate

Bloviate, a combination of blow and orate, goes back to the 1850s. It was widely popularized in the early 1900s by President Warren G. Harding, who was known for his long, windy speeches.

4. Discombobulated

This word for a feeling of uncomfortable confusion started in the 1820s as discombobberate. There was also a noun conbobberation, used to refer to some kind of disturbance.

5. Explaterate

The –ate suffix was a particular favorite in these words. Explaterate, a bit like explain and a bit like prattle, meant talk on and on in the 1830s.

6. Teetotaciously

A much more forceful and enjoyable way to say "totally."

7. Exflunctify

"To drain" or "wear out." An activity could exfluncticate you and leave you worn out or exflunctified—or even worse, teetotaciously exflunctified.

8. Obflisticate

Obliterate is a perfectly fine word of proper standing, but its substitute obflisticate somehow makes the obliteration seem more complete.

9. Ripsniptious

Snappy, smart, heart-filling and grand. “Why, don’t you look right ripsniptious today!”

10. Bodaciously

Our modern sense of bodacious as "excellent" didn’t come about until the 1970s, but in the 1830s, bodaciously was used as an exaggerated way to say bodily. If you weren’t careful out there in the wilderness, you could get “bodaciously chewed up by a grizzly bear.”

11. Discumgalligumfricated

Louise Pound, founder of the journal American Speech, recorded this glorious creation, meaning “greatly astonished but pleased,” in her notes on the terms used by her students at the University of Nebraska in the early 1900s.

12. Ramsasspatorious

This word for "excited, anxious, impatient" makes you feel all three at the same time.

13. Slantingdicular

If something can be perpendicular, why not slantingdicular (also written as slantindicular)? This one, first seen in the 1840s, deserves a comeback.

14. Dedodgement

Old dialect descriptions note this as a Kentucky term for "exit."

15. Explicitrize

H.L. Menken’s The American Language records explicitrize as a word for "censure."

This list was first published in 2015.

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