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Sometimes words won’t go away. They rattle around in your brain until you’re forced to acknowledge them in some way. 

While reading the published journal of a Civil War nurse, I came across one of those words—erysipelas. Obviously a disease of some kind, it was mentioned several times throughout the book, but I had never heard of it (probably a good, healthy thing). Hoping there might be a more familiar name, I did some research and came up with the term St. Anthony’s Fire. 

Evidently, fire is an apt description of this bacterial infection of the skin that also affects the lymphatic system. Symptoms include fever, chills, fatigue, vomiting. A red, hot rash appears on the face and extremeties. It swells and has an “orange peel” texture. The People’s Medical Advisor, published in 1909, states that “sometimes a passive delirium exists.” 

Although a common disease, one of the sources of the infection comes through a break in the skin, so it’s easy to understand why many soldiers suffered from it during the War Between the States. Unfortunately, their already frail and damaged bodies were not always able to fight the infection and they died. Today, antibiotics are used to effectively treat this disease, a remedy unavailable to doctors in the 1860’s. 

Not long ago, I had a small area on my arm that sort of fit the “orange peel” description of the rash. I’m sure it wasn’t St. Anthony’s Fire because I didn’t have the other symptoms. Well…maybe a little delirium, but I doubt that was from erysipelas.

Have you ever read a new word that appealed to you, intrigued you in some way? Maybe it sounded harsh or sang with a lyrical quality. Did you do what your parents and teachers advised, “Look it up!”? Was it a word that came across as more exciting than its actual meaning?

Let me know your favorite (ahem, publishable) mystery word. I’ll probably want to “Look it up!”, too.  

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