In our bedtime reading, my wife and I have just finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella Cousin Phillis; the ending was abrupt and didn’t really resolve anything, but we enjoyed it enough we’re about to start on her novel Cranford. One sentence we read was so funny/startling that it sent me off to the OED, and I now report on it here: “Her mother’s sister, Lydia Green, her own aunt as was, died of a decline just when she was about this lass’s age.” Died of a decline! It sounds absurdly Victorian, but it turns out it’s not quite as nugatory as it seems:

1. d. Any disease in which the bodily strength gradually fails; esp. tubercular phthisis, consumption.

1783 Gentleman’s Mag. 53 ii. 1066 [Died] at his brother’s at Enfield, of a deep decline, by bursting a blood-vessel in coughing.
1790 F. D’Ablay Diary Dec. (1842) V. 171 A general opinion that I was falling into a decline.
1845 S. Austin tr. L. von Ranke Hist. Reformation in Germany (ed. 2) I. 285 He fell into a rapid decline, and died prematurely.
1857 T. Hughes Tom Brown’s School Days ii. i. 240 She said one of his sisters was like to die of decline.
1882 New Sydenham Soc. Lexicon   Decline..applied to the later stages of phthisis pulmonalis. Also, a term for the condition formerly called Tabes.

The original of the Ranke quote reads “ſo daß er ſich raſch verzehrte und vor der Zeit ſtarb”; I presume “verzehrte” is the verbal equivalent of our “consumption.” At any rate, the usage was entirely new to me, perhaps because I haven’t read enough Victorian literature.


  1. In a P. G. Wodehouse story (The Awful Gladness of the Mater, 1925), there is “I hope he would worry himself into a decline.” It reads to me like deliberate, sarcastic archaism.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminds me of the Welsh dyciáe, which means pretty much the same; a loanword from English, as GPC helpfully explains, but I still had to look it up when I came across it in Un Nos Ola Leuad. I imagine it was a much more familiar word to our forebears (and certainly in the peri-WW1 setting of the novel.)

  3. Empires decline and fall. Old people, on the other hand, are more likely to fall and decline.

  4. I presume “verzehrte” is the verbal equivalent of our “consumption.”
    Confirmed. Nowadays, sich verzehren is obsolete with regards to actual illness, and the transferred use (e.g. sich vor Neid verzehren “to be consumed by envy”) is rather bookish.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly, tuberculosis was Schwindsucht; schwinden “dwindle, fade out”, verschwinden “disappear”, and Sucht has come to mean “addiction” but used to be in the names of lots of diseases – must be related to Seuche, “plague in general”. While I’m at it, verseucht “contaminated with something dangerous”.

  6. Der Zauberberg is the definite source to look at if you want to learn all the (polite) German vocabulary relating to tuberculosis. You may, however, find yourself wondering which locutions are actually conventionalized euphemisms snd which are just oddities of the individual characters.

  7. “To die of old age” in Japanese is 老衰死, of which老 is old, 衰 is decline, and 死 is death.
    Irritatingly, some (but not all) JE dictionaries use the term “senility” to describe the compound 老衰, but I don’t think that reflects how the English word “senility” is used these days.

  8. As they say in Russian obituaries “после тяжелой и продолжительной болезни”. I thought the expression fell in decline and died with K.U. Chernenko, but it seems to be alive and kicking however inappropriately in this case.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Nach langer, schwerer Krankheit means cancer these days. I doubt it’s even as old as Der Zauberberg – obituaries in those times tended to spell the cause of death out.

  10. Really? Here it’s the opposite — socially unacceptable diseases like cancer were never mentioned in public in the old days. (You still see “died suddenly” or “unexpectedly” to avoid mentioning suicide.)

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I hadn’t realised “died unexpectedly” was code. Like “He was unmarried” (now happily obsolete.) “Long illness” still seems to mean “cancer”, especially if people “struggle” with it.

    The obituarist’s art is at its most subtle in delicately conveying that the deceased was really quite a horrible person to deal with. I came across an obit of the (justly renowned) Hausaist R C Abraham which did that very well.

  12. He was tired and emotional.

  13. Hey, this is a great Wikipedia article. E.g.:

    Spiggy Topes is, with or without his group The Turds, the archetypal rock star, often used when the magazine wishes to satirise the antics of the more pretentious members of the rock establishment. His persona appears to owe a good deal to John Lennon and Mick Jagger, although Paul McCartney’s fashion designer daughter Stella was once referred to as Stella Topes. In some entries, Topes has received both a knighthood and a more refined version of his name – “Sir Spigismund Topes”.

  14. Cognitive decline is still with us, and has nothing to do with tuberculosis. We also now have subjective cognitive decline, the belief that higher brain functions such as memory and reasoning are worse than they used to be. I have this, and I just got a brain MRI and a bunch of neuropsychological tests; I should have some results by next month or so.

  15. “See also Popular beat combo”

  16. David Marjanović says

    socially unacceptable diseases like cancer

    I don’t know if cancer was mentioned, but why would it be socially unacceptable? It’s not syphilis…?

  17. I think the usual adverbs in Irish death notices are:

    * “tragically” suicide. I have seen “tragically following an accident” used to cancel the inference.

    * “unexpectedly”/”suddenly” heart-attack or stroke, forestalls the reaction “Dead?! I didn’t even know they were sick!”

    * “after a long illness” cancer or Alzheimer’s

    * “peacefully” none of the above

  18. @David Marjanović: I find the hesitancy to mention cancer bewildering, myself; however, it was definitely a real thing, even in the last half century. Monty Python, whose core competency was skewering the stuffiness and anxieties of British culture, were convinced to change a mention of a cartoon character having cancer to having gangrene.

    As to suicides, in obituaries, as opposed to news stories about the death itself, I believe the cause of death should be stated, tactfully, and that’s it. I remember insisting as an editor on “took her own life,” no more, no less.

  19. I don’t know if cancer was mentioned, but why would it be socially unacceptable? It’s not syphilis…?

    I don’t know if things were different in your part of the world or if you’re just too young to have been aware of the old ways, but yeah, nobody talked about cancer when I was growing up (’50s-’60s). I remember when Betty Ford talked about her breast cancer and mastectomy in 1974 it was a Big Deal.

  20. David Marjanović says

    I’m not surprised about breast cancer, let alone mastectomy, being a sensitive subject in a rather patriarchal society… but cancer in general? Why?

  21. From the ‘Big C’ to ‘Cancer’:

    In the introduction to his 2015 book, “The Death of Cancer,” Dr. Vincent T. DeVita, Jr., an oncologist at Yale University, described his Aunt Violet’s ovarian cancer diagnosis in the 1940s. “It was such a dreadful diagnosis, in fact, that many people including my parents, couldn’t bring themselves to utter the word. If they did, it was in a whisper – ‘cancer’ – as if there were something shameful about it. Or maybe it was superstition, the fear that merely saying the word out loud was tempting fate, like waving a red cape in front of a bull,” he writes.

    This was a common reaction to cancer for most of human history, says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society. “Even when I was a kid in the 1960s, people would call it the ‘Big C’ and whisper it.”

    Dr. Claire Verschraegen, professor of medicine and director of the Division of Medical Oncology in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, says ignorance was largely to blame for this fear and stigma that developed around cancer. “Limited knowledge of cancer biology and very noticeable ravages done to the body created a taboo. Lumps and bumps, which were often ulcerated, excruciating pains and certain death all instilled fear of these diseases. Fear forms the perfect formula for shrouding a misunderstood disease into a taboo,” she says.

    But a funny thing happened in the second half of the 20th century. As scientists gained a better understanding of the disease, how it works and how to detect it early, this boogeyman of diseases began to lose some of its terrifying power. To be sure, “a cancer diagnosis is [still] one of the most frightening things that can happen to a person in their lifetime. And there will always be a stigma around cancer as long as people are dying,” Verschraegen says, but it started to become something people could talk about more openly as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and beyond. As survival rates began climbing in the 1970s and 1980s with better detection technologies and treatments, the diagnosis subtly began shifting from one of certain death to one that patients had at least a hope of surviving.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Huh, so fear somehow created a stigma on the actual patients.

  23. @DM,LH: Definitely an age and not a geographical difference. That kind of “we don’t talk about cancer” attitude was still around when I grew up in the 70s.

  24. but cancer in general? Why?

    Plain old taboo avoidance of the kind that gave us brown ones and honey-eaters, I’d guess. Being hard to predict or prevent and impossible to cure, cancer would have easily attracted the same kind of superstitious let’s-not-even-mention-it-just-in-case attitude.

    (At least, judging from my surviving relatives born in the 30s and 40s, who will steadfastly refuse to name the disease under any circumstances, and look wan if someone else does.)

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    Svindsot and tæring are reportedly calques from Schwindsucht and Zehrung. The other one is kræft, while Swedish kräftor still are crayfish. Kraftædemig! is still a pretty pungent curse, though old-fashioned.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    The Kusaal for “crayfish” is kɔligin nɔraug “in-river cock.” Or for the Americans amongst us, “in-river rooster.”

    Can’t see it, myself.

    An elderly physician I knew in the 1970’s claimed that “erysipelas” was another disease name unmentionable in its (pre-antibiotic) day. I never came across this notion anywhere else, though.

  27. Lars Mathiesen says

    Í never got the impression from older literature that rosen was a deadly disease. A disfiguring one, yes, especially if recurring. (I had it on my shin once, but due to a misunderstanding I got some of the _GOOD_ antibiotics they reserve for multiresistant strains and it never came back).

    On the other hand, rosen (literally, ‘the rose’ but with the definite form treated as a new noun) very much looks like an euphemism, but there is no mention of an earlier name that I can find.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Erysipelas was indeed often fatal in the pre-antibiotic era (and very nasty even if you survived.)

    I must admit that I’ve never seen this reflected in literary sources, though. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mention of it.

    My informant was not very reliable on such matters (as far as I could tell.)

  29. David Marjanović says

    brown ones

    Savage ones more likely; the concept of “brown” isn’t that old.

  30. Kate Bunting says

    Apparently erysipelas was once known as St. Anthony’s Fire.

  31. There’s an old joke revolving around someone confusing erysipelas with syphilis. Maybe the elderly physician heard the joke once and didn’t get it.

  32. The joke goes, in essence: Doctor: “Ma’am, your son has erysipelas.” *Mother slaps son* The confusion with syphilis is only implied. It’s easy to imagine a literal-minded person missing the point, maybe missing entirely that it’s a joke.

  33. The euphemism I remember from the 1970s was “C.A.”, both written and spoken, semi-parallel to ‘T.B.’ The business of not telling patients (for fear they might despair and commit suicide, perhaps?) was also a thing then. In a more extreme case, my mother reported a change in bowel habits (one of the classic cancer symptoms) to her doctor; he told her it was nothing and sent her home. Within two years she had died of bowel cancer that had massively spread to her liver.


    Curiously, Dutch teren no longer means ‘rot, decompose, waste away; be digested’: its current meaning is ‘survive (by eating or drinking)’ or contrarily ‘eat or drink (in order to survive)’. The noun tering means ‘expenses’, but also ‘[dated] tuberculosis’ per Wikt.

    We also shouldn’t forget Dutch Kanker! ‘What an incredibly bad/poor/annoying thing/situation!’ (This may also be used in Afrikaans and/or Indonesian; Wikt is silent.)

    Swedish kräftor still are crayfish

    Rather ‘are once again only crayfish’; the meaning ‘cancer’ was once present but then lost.


    Wikt says s.v. kraftedeme (it lists other spellings with a/æ and me/mig as well):

    According to DDO and NDO, a contraction of kræft æde mig (“may cancer devour me”). This expanded phrase, however, is largely unattested, whereas kraft æde mig (“may [the] power/force devour me”) occurs frequently not only in older literature, but also in recent works. The situation is muddied further by kraft being an obsolete spelling of kræft according to ODS.

    “Kraft æde dig, Darth Vader!”

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    My informant certainly meant “erysipelas”, and wasn’t himself in any danger of confusing it with syphilis; but it’s conceivable that he might have misunderstood the reason for the name-tabu. If there ever was one …

    Somewhere or other I’ve got a copy of the actual epic poem Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus

    I don’t think Virgil’s shade has anything to worry about from the comparison.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    It was regarded as quite normal when I began practice not to tell patients about their serious diseases.

    In my line of work, this came up most often with Multiple Sclerosis. There is some logic to that, inasmuch as there was then no form of treatment, even experimental, with any evidence at all behind it; and it is characteristic of the disease that people often make a near-total recovery from individual episodes, and go possibly years in between with no problems. There are also problems with actually being sure of the diagnosis; by definition, you can’t diagnose it on the basis of a single isolated episode of demyelination (and it used to be thought – wrongly, alas – that most people with an isolated episode never did have a further episode.)

    These days, even if you were a medical throwback who still felt you had the right to deny the information to the patient, all that would happen is that they would google their symptoms and either come up with the right diagnosis themselves, along with graphic accounts of some of the worst-case outcomes possible, with nobody to explain that those were unlikely, or with the names of some even more horrible neurological conditions (there are plenty.)

  36. David Marjanović says

    I haven’t encountered Kanker! on its own, but “Fuck!” is Kankermoer!, a contraction of “your mother has cancer (because she’s predestined to go to hell and it’s already manifesting in this life)”.

  37. Gaskell remains mysteriously underrated. Cranford is a delight; North and South and Wives and Daughters are also worth the read.

  38. Lars Mathiesen says

    I don’t think kraftededa (or however a smoothed form would come out) is a thing, but fanden ta dig is a sincere if vehement wish, not a bleached intensifier like fandeme (which according to the ODS may actually just be leaving the actual verb to the listener’s pleasure or maybe it was æde originally but it’s vanished away).

    And yeah, there’s supposed to be a difference in vowel quality between kraft and kræft, but it’s one of those cases where our successful program to confuse the Norwegians has surpassed its goals and makes the identification of which was meant less than surefire even for ourselves. (I shall not mention the YPN-A-D. Oops).

  39. Cranford is a delight; North and South and Wives and Daughters are also worth the read.

    Thanks, now we have a plan for future reading!

  40. Lars M.: On the other hand, rosen (literally, ‘the rose’ but with the definite form treated as a new noun) very much looks like an euphemism, but there is no mention of an earlier name that I can find.

    Are you sure about the definite? In Norwegian it’s tone 1* while the definite of rose is tone 2, whether it’s common gender rosen or feminine rosa, Tone 1 rosen sounds to me more like a back-formation from a compound rosenfeber (like in Swedish), presumably imported through Danish from German medical vocabulary.

    * Homonymous to rosen “the praise (not the religious sense)”.

  41. David Marjanović says

    It’s apparently absent from German medical vocabulary, but the de:WP article for shingles says Gürtelrose is from an obsolete term Wundrose that used to be applied to all sorts of acute local skin inflammations.

  42. It seems so weird when, at the beginning of Ikiru,* the doctor lies to Mr. Watanabe about having stomach cancer, but that was evidently a real phenomenon in 1950s Japan.

    * Ikiru is the answer to a trivia question, being the only film Akira Kurosawa directed over a period of more than fifteen years that did not star Toshiro Mifune, until Mifune and Kurosawa had their falling out over Red Beard. Instead, it stars the director’s other favorite leading man of the period, Takashi Shimura, who was only in his forties at the time, playing a significantly older man. Shimura was in more of Kurosawa’s films than any other actor, although unlike Mifune he sometimes played rather minor roles.

  43. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Trond, I’m not sure, neither is the ODS but it leans that way:

    II. Rosen, en. [ˈro·s(ə)n] (ænyd. rose(n), sv. ros († rosen), ty. rose; egl. sa. ord som I. Rose (Rosen), snarest best. f. heraf (se dog Tamm.Tyska ändelser.(1880).16); jf. I. Rose 2.7 og Ansigts-, Knuderosen ofl. samt hellig ild u. II. hellig 5.3; med., vet.)

    Neither rose, its definite form nor the disease have stød in my Danish. The definite form of ros does.

    (That should have been “none of” and “or” innit? Will I be eaten by a grue now?)

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