5 Derogatory Adjectives Derived from Words for Medical Conditions

By Mark Nichol

The five uncomplimentary adjectives discussed in this post have in common their origin in references to diseases and other conditions affecting humans and/or other species.

1. Lousy

Lousy, meaning “contemptible” or “inferior,” or “ill,” derives from the name of the parasitic insect known as the louse (plural lice), several species of which infest humans. Thanks to their literally irritating presence, the adjective originally meaning “infested with lice” came to have other, figurative connotations, including “replete with,” inspired by the notion of swarming lice.

Two other words are associated with lice: Crumb, a nineteenth-century slang word for lice based on their appearance, came to refer to a “lousy,” or detestable, person. Also, nit, the word for young lice, is the basis of the verb nitpick and the noun and adjective nit-picking (note the differing compound treatments), which refer to the precise grooming behavior of removing lice from the body. By extension, the words came to apply to excessively detailed (and often uncalled-for) criticism.

2. Mangy

Mangy, meaning “bare” or “worn,” or “seedy” or “shabby,” stems from the medical condition known as mange, caused by parasitic mites that lodge themselves in skin or in hair follicles. The conditions afflicting humans are called scabies and demodicosis, depending on the area of infection, but in fur-covered mammals, the disease is popularly known as mange. Because it causes hair loss, animals afflicted with mange have bald spots in their coats and are described as mangy. (This term is therefore often used to refer to a poorly groomed or otherwise neglected dog.) By extension, distressed floor and furniture coverings are described as mangy, and a messy, neglected room or other location might also be referred to as such.

3. Measly

The adjective originally associated with the name of the virus-borne disease called measles, which causes a rash on the body as well as other symptoms, came to be used as a scornful term denoting a very small or unacceptably small amount.

4. Rickety

Rickety, meaning “shaky” or “unstable,” or “in poor physical condition,” derives from the medical condition known as rickets, which as a result of Vitamin D or calcium deficiency in children and young animals causes deformed, soft bones. By extension, it refers not only to the unsteady movement of an afflicted person or animal but also any such movement or condition, especially in furniture or structures. (Rickettsia, the name of which is derived from the surname Ricketts, is an unrelated affliction.)

5. Scurvy

Alone among these terms, scurvy is a noun form as well as an adjective. It began as a variant of scurfy, and literally refers to Vitamin C deficiency resulting in weakness and bleeding and/or swollen gums. (The scientific name for Vitamin C, ascorbic acid, derives from the Latin term scorbuticus, which is based on the Germanic forebear of scurfy and scurvy.) Scurvy began life as an insult among sailors, who, due to lack of access to fresh food containing Vitamin C, were among those most likely to be afflicted.

On a related note, the slang word limey originally referred to English sailors and sailing ships because the Royal Navy introduced rations of lime juice to prevent scurvy among its crews; by extension, the mildly derogatory term (originally lime-juicer) was assigned to British immigrants by longtime residents of Australia and other British colonies.

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2 Responses to “5 Derogatory Adjectives Derived from Words for Medical Conditions”

  • venqax

    Wonder how “measly” came to mean “a very small or unacceptably small amount.” The others are pretty evident, but what is the connection between symptoms of the measles and the mentioned concept? Interesting.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Also, “leper”, and the “leprosy” of Biblical times was not the same disease as the leprosy – Hansen’s Disease – of modern times. Nobody knows what the leprosy of ancient times was. There is a wide variety of skin diseases that it could have been, or it could have been many, with the same name because of the ignorance back then.

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