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Catchy metaphors, similes and colloquial expressions in medicine

Similes are like songs of love: they much describe; they nothing prove.

Matthew Prior (1664–1721)

It is interesting to reflect on learning habits and strategies of students. Experienced educators recognise that word associations with gimmicky connotations reinforce learning of various disorders in medicine.

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Adolescent knee Osgood–Schlatter disorder
Age spots Lentigines
Alabaster skin Hypopituitarism (pale hairless skin)
Alice in Wonderland syndrome

A state of unreality with a distorted view of oneself

Associated with complex partial seizures and migraine

Also experienced when falling asleep (esp. children)

Athlete’s foot Tinea pedis
Barmaid’s syndrome Chronic laryngitis
Bath itch Polythemia vera
Bird fancier’s disease Psittacosis
Black death Plague (Yersinia pestis)—haemorrhage into skin → black areas
Black dog Major depression
Black fever/black sickness Visceral leishmaniasis—kala azar (darkening of skin on extremities)
Black eschar (slough or scab) at bite site Typhus (esp. scrub typhus from tick bite)
Black heel (talon noir) Petechiae due to trauma (sportspeople), melanoma
Black lung Coal dust pneumoconiosis
Black tongue Poor oral hygiene/debility, drugs (esp. antibiotics)
Blackwater fever Chronic severe Plasmodium falciparum malaria
Blue sclera Osteogenesis imperfecta
Bones, stones, moans and abdominal groans Hyperparathyroidism
Breakbone fever Dengue
Breast mouse Fibroadenoma
Brewer’s droop Erectile dysfunction due to alcohol
Buffalo hump Cushing syndrome
Bulky calves Duchenne muscular dystrophy
Bull neck infection Diphtheria
Buried penis Synonymous with ‘concealed penis’ or ‘inconspicuous penis’
Butterfly rash (3) SLE (lupus), rosacea, mitral facies
Can’t pee, can’t see, can’t climb a tree Reiter’s syndrome
Cats (several) Cat scratch fever, cat’s eye (retinoblastoma), toxoplasmosis, allergy, cat cry (‘maladie du cri du chat’)
Chimneysweeper’s wart SCC scrotal skin
Cigarette-burn look to skin Staphylococcal impetigo
Clay pipe lesion SCC lip
Christmas tree rash pattern Pityriasis rosea
Coca-Cola urine Post streptococcal glomerulonephritis
Coffee grounds vomitus Gastric/duodenal bleeding
Collar stud abscess TB abscess in neck
Creeping (serpiginous) rash Cutaneous larvae migrans
Crocodile tears syndrome Post Bell palsy (when eating)
Cradle crap Toddler’s diarrhoea
Cupid’s disease Increased libido in older people with neurosyphilis
Deadly nightshade Belladonna
Déjà vu (familiarity) + jamais vu (unreality) Complex partial seizure (temporal lobe epilepsy)
Dinner fork deformity Colle fracture
Dirty diaper (pants) gait Ataxic gait of cerebellar disease/dysfunction
Doll’s head sign People in coma/semi-coma with eyes focused on a fixed spot
Donald Duck speech Pseudobulbar palsy of motor neurone disease
Doughnut-shaped rash (at bite site) Lyme disease (tick bite)
Dowager’s hump Osteoporosis
Duck bill deformity Zigzag (Z deformity) of thumb as in rheumatoid arthritis
Duck waddling gait Osteitis pubis
Elephant man Neurofibromatosis type 1 (Von Recklinghausen disease)
• almond shaped Prader–Willi syndrome
• beefy = bloodshot eye Subconjunctival haematoma
• glitter Bright eyes of thyrotoxicosis (conjunctival oedema)
• lazy Amblyopia
• pink (also a type of red eye) Usually used to describe viral conjunctivitis
• red Inflammation of conjunctivitis
Facies/facial appearance
• bird-like Scleroderma
• bulldog Congenital syphilis
• chipmunk Thalassaemia major
• elfin

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