What does ‘scrofulous’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: scrofulous…

The marvellous historical novel, Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell contains a veritable dictionary of interesting words.

One of them is scrofulous, a word I’d heard a number of times before, but never investigated its meaning. Here is how O’Farrell used it:

A small child — a boy, he supposes — darts , barefoot, bareheaded, ragged of smock, scrofulous of complexion, and call out an approximation of his name, in an assertive, reedy voice, waving a letter aloft, as if it were a flag.

I suspected it might be related to scruffy, meaning unkempt. But in fact, the word is Latin and dates back to 1400, referring to a “swelling of the glands of the neck.” Literally, it means “little pigs,” from Latin scrofa “breeding sow”. The connection may be because the glands associated with the disease resemble the body of a sow or some part of it, or because pigs were thought to be prone to the disease.

The image at the top of this post shows a scrofula of the neck and is taken from the 1893 Atlas of Clinical Medicine stored at the National Library of Medicine, at the American National Institutes of Health. Historically, scrofula was called the “king’s evil.” Until the 18th century, doctors thought the only way to cure the disease was to be touched by a member of a royal family.

Often associated with tuberculosis, scrofula has become a less common disease in adults in the second half of the 20th century, but has remained in children. And with the appearance of AIDS,  it has shown a resurgence.

Scruff, however, is an Old English term for dandruff and  conveys a generalized sense of someone who is  “rough and dirty.” It dates back to 1871.

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