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Pronounced /ˈæpəzɪm/Help with pronunciation

A founding principle of old-time doctoring was never to call a thing by an ordinary name when a highfalutin one would impress the patients more. This satire on such medical obfuscations appeared some 250 years ago and is worth quoting at length for the variety of obscure terms trotted out by a quack apothecary:

Upon a more particular inquiry about the symptoms, he was told that the blood was seemingly viscous, and salt upon the tongue; the urine remarkably acrosaline; and the faeces atrabilious and foetid. When the doctor said he would engage to find the same phenomena in every healthy man of the three kingdoms, the apothecary added, that the patient was manifestly comatous, and moreover afflicted with griping pains and borborygmata. “A f--t for your borborygmata,” cried the physician; “what has been done?” To this question, he replied, that venesection had been three times performed; that a vesicatory had been applied inter scapulas; that the patient had taken occasionally of a cathartic apozem, and between whiles, alexipharmic boluses and neutral draughts.

The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, by Tobias Smollett, 1762. Atrabilious: affected by black bile, melancholy; comatous: comatose; borborygmata: rumblings in the guts; venesection: opening or cutting a vein, phlebotomy; vesicatory: an irritating ointment or plaster designed to raise blisters on the skin; inter scapulas: between the shoulder blades; alexipharmic: a substance intended to ward off poisons. The missing letters in the imprecation f--t are presumably a and r, since “a fart for your ... ” was a dismissive comment at the time and “a fart for your borborygmata” is a witty riposte to the apothecary’s maunderings.

Any ordinary person would describe an apozem as an infusion, or perhaps a decoction. It comes via French from the late Latin apozema, which in turn derives from Greek words meaning to boil off completely. The term is obsolete.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Jun. 2009

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Last modified: 13 June 2009.