Posted by: Didapper PJ4 DEC 2013
Recently, having been scheduled for a “virtual colonoscopy”, I had to clear my bowels completely by assaulting them with sodium picosulfate and magnesium citrate. It was a deeply unpleasant ordeal, but luckily the scan showed that I had no serious intestinal problem.
But the experience started me thinking about the history of laxative use. When I qualified as a pharmacist many years ago, there was a popular belief that one had to be “regular” in one’s bowel habits. Pharmacies sold many laxatives — senna products, cascara extracts, castor oil, liquid paraffin emulsion, magnesium salts, glycerin suppositories, bisacodyl tablets, etc — most of which had unwanted side effects.
My school of pharmacy had taught me about laxatives, but I was flummoxed when a customer asked me to recommend an aperient. This synonym for laxative had not surfaced during my four years of pharmacy education, but I later learnt that the word — derived from the Latin aperire, to open — had been in use since the 17th century.
Of course, aperient is by no means the only alternative name for a laxative, and pharmacists will have come across words such as purgative (from the Latin for purifying), evacuant (from the Latin for emptying) and cathartic (from the Greek for cleansing).
But have you ever met lapactic? Originating in the mid-18th century, this word is derived from the Greek lapaktikós, from the verb lapássein, to evacuate. I first encountered it when I was looking for pharmacy items at an antiques market and found an ancient phial of Sharp & Dohme’s Lapactic Pills. This product, launched as a “tonic laxative” in 1882, contained ipecacuanha, belladonna and strychnine.
An even more obscure synonym is exipotic, from Greek éxpotikós, from éxipoûn, to squeeze out. The word is so arcane that you are unlikely to find it in your 21st century dictionary. But it had its use in the mid-19th century and it might be fun to revive it.