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.

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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