Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

MY HUSBAND was out pretending to shoot something, leaving me in a snug library on the dry side of windows streaming with unremitting rain. I picked up a volume of The Gentleman's Magazine for 1745, and was immediately hooked by the London General Bills of Mortality for the year.

It was the poetry of 18th-century popular diagnoses that fascinated me. What good fortune that my Nimrod of a husband was out on the soggy moors, or he'd have brought me down to earth quick enough with the modern polysyllabic nomenclature.

Anyway, 14,078 people were christened in London that year, but 21,296 buried (of whom 7,689 were under two). It was no surprise that Consumption killed 4,015, but I did not expect to find this outnumbered by the 5,728 dead of Convulsion; I wonder how many were infants.

The poetry comes with Leprosie (3) and Lethargy (5), Vapours (1) and Worms (13). Tympany (2) puzzled me till I looked it up; it is swelling of the belly, or more loosely any kind of lump, which does not help. Imposthume killed 22 and the Itch 4; Bloody Flux 15; Cancer 46, but Canker 1; Colick, Gripes and Twisting of the Guts 135. Dropsy claimed 1,094, which only narrowly outdoes Teeth (1,048). …

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