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I am reading Candide by Voltaire. Candide urges a sick man to find a cure for his illness, and the man responds with

"Alas! how can I?" said Pangloss, "I have not a farthing, my friend, and all over the globe there is no letting of blood or taking a glister, without paying, or somebody paying for you."

A search of the word glister typically redirects to glisten or glitter. But these lead to the expected definitions about the behavior of light.

Searching the phrase taking a glister led to a result that claims the action can break a fast, which may imply impurity or consumption.

From the information I found I think it may be:

  1. Slang for a hygienic (like "take a shower") or medical (with "letting of blood") practice
  2. A form of measurement, perhaps like "take a pill"

What does the phrase "taking a glister" mean?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It is an old name for enema. As the example, here is an extract from "Medical observations and inquiries, Volume 3" (1769), where glister is used when a patient had a hard time swallowing and eating, so it was advised for the patient to:

... take a glister twice a day, made of near a pint of strong mutton broth with the yolk of an egg dissolved in each...

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I like your mention of cause ("when a patient had a hard time swallowing and eating") because of its insight into the patient's condition, namely "his mouth distorted, his teeth black, choking in his throat, tormented with a violent cough, and spitting out a tooth at each effort." –  dingo_dan Dec 20 '13 at 17:04

glister: Alternative form of clyster.

clyster (plural clysters)
(now rare) A medicine applied via the rectum; an enema or suppository
Etymology: From Middle French clystere, or its source, Latin clyster, from Ancient Greek κλυστήρ (klustēr).

from kluzein, to wash out. (ibid., AHD)
from klyd-, base of klýzein to rinse out (compare cataclysm) (ibid., K Dict.)

Historical background from WP:

Clyster (/ˈklɪstə(r)/), also spelled glister in the 17th century, comes from Greek κλυστήρ (klystḗr), from κλύζω (klýzo), "(I) wash". It is an archaic word for enema, more particularly for enemas administered using a clyster syringe – that is, a syringe with a rectal nozzle and a plunger rather than a bulb. Clyster syringes were used from the 17th century (or before) to the 19th century, when they were largely replaced by enema bulb syringes, bocks, and bags.


phrase: ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)
This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

… Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.

[Allen, K: Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine, 'The Recipes Project' on hypothesis] [emphasis added]

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