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Lenten fever

John Bostock (1773-1846), British physicianHay fever as a term is about 200 years old. As luck would have it, just after I published my previous entry, Hej Fever! I heard a snippet on the radio news referencing Dr John Bostock (that’s him over to the right), the man who first described and named hay fever in 1819.

Bostock was himsef a sufferer and set out to discover what the disease was. His first paper was a study of a single patient (himself), but being a physician and a scientist he knew this wasn’t enough. He had to find other sufferers. According to my radio programme, this turned out not to be so easy.

Why was it so difficult to find other hay fever sufferers in the early 1800s? The radio report made out that hay fever is a modern phenomenon; that it has become more common in our sickly modern age. Dr Bostock himself was convinced the condition was one that affected members “in the middle and upper classes of society… I have not heard of a single unequivocal case among the poor,” he wrote in 1828.

I imagine Dr Bostock trying to identify fellow sufferers. As the disease hadn’t been described or identified, how would he have explained what he meant? OK, he could’ve called it summer catarrh, but I’m not sure he didn’t coin that term too. No, he was trying to distinguish a specific condition so he’d probably have had to describe the symptoms he was after.

“Excuse me, my good fellow. Do you suffer from a seasonal springtime illness involving a sensation of heat and fullness in the eyes, an itching and smarting as of small points striking or darting into the ball, a copious discharge of a thick mucus fluid, a general fullness in the head, an irritation of the nose producing sneezing, which occurs in fits of extreme violence, a tightness of the chest and a difficulty of breathing, and a general irritation of the fauces and trachea? Possibly accompanied by a huskyness of the voice and an incapacity of speaking aloud for any time without inconvenience, a general indisposition, a degree of langour, an incapacity for muscular exertion, a loss of apetite, emaciation? Restless nights and profuse perspiration, your extremities however being generally cold, and an increase in your pulse from 80 to 100 or even 120 beats per second?”

I wonder how many people of the day – especially among the poor – would have answered ‘yes’ to that.

Spring fever
Hay fever aside, there is a long tradition of not feeling on top of things in the spring. And, yes, I know there’s an equally long tradition of exactly the opposite. There’s another term for this: Spring fever.

For some people spring fever is the term of preference for the seasonal obsession with cleaning that seems to seize people at this time of the year. For others it clearly means “an increasing energy, vitality and sexual appetite” or to quote another site “spring fever is when you get hot and horny”. No, I’m not going to link to that. 🙂

Instead I’ll give you this – a definition from the Urban Dictionary. Spring fever is … “Excessive horniness eclipsed by post nasal drip.”

Another definition suggests spring fever is actually the same thing that Swedes mean by vårtrötthet and Germans by Frühjahrsmüdigkeit; the tiredness you feel in the spring as the days grow longer. This in turn is variously interpreted either as an aspect of Seasonal Affective Disorder or as a physical weakness. (And I see from the current definition in Wikipedia that the physical weakness can also include “aching in the joints”.)

The Wiktionary identifies spring fever as a contranym, a word which functions as its own antonym “capable of meaning either invigorating or listlessness”.

A little bit more of a search on the Internet turns up another term, this one from the Old English: lenctenadle. The first part of the word comes from lencten (preserved in Lent) which was the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, the second part of the word, -adle, meant disease or sickness.

Hay fever, Spring fever, Lenten fever … are these perhaps one and the same thing? I’d like to believe it, but I’m not sure. The Anglo-Saxon dictionary I’m using glosses lenctenadle as either spring fever or … tertiary ague. Tertiary ague is a form of malaria! You get the shakes (the agueacute – fever) every third day.

On the one hand it’s malaria. (This is certainly something a damn sight more serious than snuva-snuffles!) On the other hand, it’s feeling a bit low after a dark northern winter.

Well, who knows. I think this all deserves much more study than I’m prepared to give it now (and I’m already more than 24 hours past my deadline for this entry), so I’ll close here and plan to come back to the subject later on.


Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
The Medical Dictionary at The Free Dictionary
Online Etymology Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (2nd edn) – in print
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms
Svenska Akademiens Ordbook
The Urban Dictionary

The portrait of John Bostock (and most of the symptoms of hay fever in the box) are from the Royal Society of Medicine’s Internet site, their entry on John Bostock.

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