Here are two questions that were left lurking under the covers of the recent “Pox and Pains (Stage 2)” posting to this blog:

  1. What was syphilis called in England between the time of the outbreak of the epidemic of circa 1495 and the  publication of Nahum Tate’s1686 translation of Fracastoro’s 1530 Syphilis sive morbus gallicus from which the disease got its name?
  2. Is there any linguistic evidence in English for the occurrence of the disease in the Old World prior to 1493? (If there were, obviously, we would conclude that syphilis was not an import from theNew World as has often been suggested.)

 One approach to answering these questions would be to look in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED). Published in 2009, the HTOED encompasses the lexical corpus afforded primarily by the OED, supplemented by some of the contents of A Thesaurus of Old English, a work compiled by two of the HTOED’s four editors (Roberts and Kay). As the first thesaurus to offer both synchronic and diachronic views of our language, this marvelous book (or rather pair of them—the thesaurus proper and its index) is invaluable not only as a compendium of the lexicon of contemporary (written) English but, uniquely, because it is a historical thesaurus, affording multiple views of our language at various times, superimposed on each other. Hence, any given entry can show you what the word for X was (if any) at such and such a date and what replaced or supplemented it at later dates.

 Syphilis appears in the HTOED under the entry for Venereal disease [HTOED (n.), where the numbers represent the word’s address in the HTOED’s taxonomy: 01. (the world).02 (life).01 (health and disease).01 (ill health).04 (a disease).18 (disorders of the internal organs).18 (venereal disease). The entry is worth quoting in full:

Venereal disease burning 1382-1860 ∙ bone-ache 1398–1606; 1900 ∙ venerean disease 1612 ∙ crinkums/crincums 1618-1719 ∙ venereal disease 1658-  ∙ bone-ague 1659 ∙ crankums 1661 ∙ venereal 1843; 1843 ∙ V.D./v.d. 1920-  ∙ a certain disease 1927-  ∙ social disease 1978 01 person fireship 1672-1748 (slang) ∙ venereal 1788; 1933 02 attack of a dose 1914- ∙ load 1937 (slang) 03 syphilis pocks 1480-1529 ∙ grandgore 1497-1716 (chiefly Scots) ∙ Spanish pocks 1500/20-1681 ∙ French pox 1503; 1740 ∙ great pox 1529-1819 ∙ pock 1530 ∙ French pocks a1548 ∙ pox 1550- ∙ French crown 1590 ∙ French marbles a1592 ∙ Neapolitan favour 1592 ∙ verol 1596 ∙ French disease 1598; 1760/92 ∙ verola 1600 ∙  the foul evil 1607 ∙ Spanish pox 1608 ∙ grincome 1608-1678 (slang) ∙ Scottish fleas 1623 ∙ Neapolitan 1631 ∙ lues 1634- ∙ scabbado 1651-1725 ∙ Neapolitan disease 1657-1777 ∙ Neapolitan scab 1671 ∙ Covent-garden gout 1694; 1700 ∙ Spanish gout a1700 ∙ common-garden gout 1700 ∙ Neapolitan consolation a1704 ∙ syphilis 1718- ∙ syphilide 1829-1897 ∙ syphiloderm(a) 1852; 1876 ∙ neurosyphilis 1878- ∙ vaccino-syphilis 1878- ∙ syphiloid 1890- ∙ syph/siph 1914- (slang) ∙ bejel 1928- 04 gonorrhoea gonorrhoea 1547- ∙ running of the reins 1569; 1607 ∙ shedding of nature 1584 ∙ clap 1587- ∙ r(hea) 1935- (joc.) 05 other venereal diseases Winchester goose 1611-1727 ∙ Winchestrian goose a1637 ∙ crystalline 1647 ∙ soft chancre 1859- ∙ chancroid 1861 ∙ soft sore 1884- ∙ granulomatosis 1911- ∙ trichomoniasis 1915- ∙ granuloma inguinale 1918- ∙ LGV 1949 ∙ chlamydia/Chlamydia 1984- 06 disease caused by masturbation wanker’s doom 1950- (slang vulgar).” (AIDS, in case you were wondering, is listed elsewhere, under Bacterial/viral disorders [HTOED (n.)] 02 viral disorders 02.01 Aids acquired immune deficiency syndrome 1982- (Medicine/Obstetrics) ∙ AIDS/Aids 1982- ∙ gay plague 1982- (colloq., orig. US) ∙ Slim (disease) 1985-. )

 Clearly, there were several terms or phrases preceding syphilis that speakers of English could use to refer to the disease. (For an entertaining and informative exposition of a number of these, see Paul Brewster’s “A Note on the ‘Winchester Goose’ and Kindred Topics,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 13, issue 4 [1958].) Most of these are etymologically pretty straightforward, though some, like crinkums/crincums, crankums, and grincome are quite obscure (and not, as one might have guessed, derived from the name of a Jacobean law firm). The origins of the terms  grandgore and the marbles of French marbles are, respectively, surely and probably borrowings from French—marbles is probably Medieval French morbilles ‘(smallpox) pustules’ from Latin morbilli ‘pustules, pox;’ while grandgore is from grand/grant (‘great’) plus gorre/gaurre, a word of obscure origin that may or may not have anything to do with gorre (Old French gore) ‘sow, piglet’ or another gorre attested in the 1400s meaning ‘luxury, fastidious appearance.’ So much for question #1.

What about question #2? Well, as far as the lexical evidence goes for the existence of the disease of syphilis in Europe before Columbus’s round trip to Hispaniola, the returns are not exactly what one would call clear cut. Burning, bone-ache, and pocks/pox, all of which are attested before 1490, are problematic in their imprecision. That is, all three terms could refer to any of a number of afflictions, not just syphilis specifically. For example, the HTOED (perhaps hedging its bets) lists burning 1382-1860 under both Venereal disease and Eruptive diseases [HTOED (n.)] 04 erysipelas, which Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (27th ed. 1988) defines as “[Gr. erythros red + pella skin] an acute form of cellulitis…chiefly characterized by a peripherally spreading hot, bright red, …plaque with a raised undurated border.” (Shingles and smallpox appear as erysipelas’s next-door neighbors, at 16.2 and 17, respectively.) There is a similar problem with pocks/pox, which could refer to a number of pustule-raising diseases—indeed, it wasn’t until the early 1500s that the distinction between the great pox and small(-)pox came into currency—and so makes an appearance in multiple entries in the HTOED.

 But this is one of the problems with writing a thesaurus: sometimes you’re not sure what pigeonhole to put a word in because you aren’t sure what the word actually refers to—X  could refer to Y or it could refer to Z, or both, or maybe something that’s like Y and Z but it’s not exactly clear what—so pocks/pox can go in multiple places on the grounds that it can refer to multiple distinct entities; Winchester goosecan go in a catch-all category because we know it refers to a venereal disease but we’re not sure which one (syphilis or gonorrhea being the most likely); and wanker’s doom can be in a class by itself (appropriately enough) at least until dhat makes it into the OED.