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.

This Outdoor Lantern Will Keep Mosquitoes Away—No Bug Spray Necessary

Thermacell, Amazon
Thermacell, Amazon

With summer comes outdoor activities, and with those activities come mosquito bites. If you're one of the unlucky people who seem to attract the insects, you may be tempted to lock yourself inside for the rest of the season. But you don't have to choose between comfort and having a cocktail on the porch, because this lamp from Thermacell ($25) keeps outdoor spaces mosquito-free without the mess of bug spray.

The device looks like an ordinary lantern you would display on a patio, but it works like bug repellent. When it's turned on, a fuel cartridge in the center provides the heat needed to activate a repellent mat on top of the lamp. Once activated, the repellent in the mat creates a 15-by-15-foot bubble of protection that repels any mosquitos nearby, making it a great option for camping trips, days by the pool, and backyard barbecues.

Mosquito repellent lantern.

Unlike some other mosquito repellents, this lantern is clean, safe, and scent-free. It also provides light like a real lamp, so you can keep pests away without ruining your backyard's ambience.

The Thermacell mosquito repellent lantern is now available on Amazon. If you've already suffered your first mosquito bites of the summer, here's some insight into why that itch can be so excruciating.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Words With Difficult-to-Remember Meanings

Can you keep the definitions of these words straight?
Can you keep the definitions of these words straight?
Satenik_Guzhanina/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Sometimes there are words that you've seen, read, and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick. From our friends at Vocabulary.com, here are 10 words with definitions that can be difficult to remember. Some look like they have a negative element in them, but either because their positive counterpoint has fallen out of use or because it never existed in the first place, the word doesn't really have a negative sense. Other words below are often confused for their opposite or have come to have connotations not quite reflected in their dictionary definitions.

1. Nonplussed

The Definition: “Filled with bewilderment”

If it looks like there's a negative at the beginning of this word, it's because etymologically speaking, there is—it's from Latin non plus, "no more, no further." Still, there is no word plussed, and that can get confusing.

2. Inchoate

The Definition: “Only partly in existence; imperfectly formed”

It may look like the in- at the start of this word would be the same as the one at the start of words like incomplete or inadequate. Although that may be a good way to remember it, the first letters of this word are not a negative. The word comes from Latin inchoare, which meant "to begin." Inchoate things are often just beginning.

3. and 4. Cachet and Panache

The Definitions: “an indication of approved or superior status”; “distinctive and stylish elegance,” respectively

Shades of meaning between cachet and panache are often confused. Cachet is more about prestige, and panache is more about style. Having high tea at Buckingham Palace can have a lot of cachet in your social circle, but the genteel way you sip your tea can have a lot of panache.

5. Indefatigable

The Definition: “Showing sustained enthusiastic action with unflagging vitality”

In Latin, it was possible to defatigare, or "to tire out," but only the negative version prefixed with in- survived the journey into English (via French). Indefatigable is a word you almost have to say quickly, and if you get through all those syllables, it's almost as if you've proven the definition: It takes "unflagging vitality" to reach the end.

6. Uncanny

The Definition: “Surpassing the ordinary or normal”

The word canny is rare but not unknown as a word that means "cunning" or "sly." The only problem is that that's not the meaning of canny contained in uncanny. Canny used to mean "knowing and careful," and therefore uncanny meant "mischievous," coming to refer to supernatural spirits who toyed with mortals. Comic book fans have a huge head start with this word, having grown up with the Uncanny X-Men, who all have supernatural powers.

7. Unabashed

The Definition: “Not embarrassed”

This word is one where the positive version did exist but has fallen out of use. Abash meant "perplex, embarrass, lose one's composure" in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, so unabashed means "not embarrassed."

8. Dilatory

The Definition: “Wasting time”

This word is confusing because it sounds like it's potentially related to words like dilate or even depilatory. It's not related to either of those words, but luckily there are ways to remember what dilatory actually means—the word almost sounds like delay or dilly dally, both of which relate to the word's definition.

9. Martinet

The Definition: “Someone who demands exact conformity to rules and forms”

This word looks and sounds like marionette, the stringed puppet, which is a pitfall to avoid, because it can lead you to believe that martinet means the exact opposite of what it actually means. A martinet has some power, and no one is pulling their strings.

10. Hoi Polloi

The Definition: “The common people generally”

This is confusing because it's an obscure word for the common folk, and sometimes it's hard to keep straight whether the upper or lower crust is being discussed. Hoi polloi literally means "the many," with polloi being the plural of the well-known Greek prefix poly.

To see more words with difficult-to-remember meanings, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.