Tuberculosis was commonly called "consumption" for many years. When did "tuberculosis" or "TB" overtake "consumption" as the common term, in English, for the disease?

This Ngram isn't much use; it compares the use of the terms "consumption" and "tuberculosis" in American English from 1800 to 2000. Of course the problem is that "consumption" means many other things. The Ngram does show "tuberculosis" peaking between 1900 and 1920, but what I am interested in is roughly when a typical English speaker might have shifted from referring to the disease as "consumption," to "tuberculosis."

The dictionaries to which I have access simply state that "consumption" is an archaic term for the disease.

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    Amending the Ngram a little (adding ‘died of’ before the terms to weed out the false hits for ‘consumption’) indicates that it was some time around 1920–1930. Not sure how reliable that is, though. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:00
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    'Consumption' was still in wide use among the population in Britain in the 1950s, but I think the medical profession had long-since used 'tuberculosis', perhaps due to the horrors of the old name. I remember having the vaccination around 1959. But TB had largely been conquered before the vaccine arrived.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 17:49
  • Many of these answers mention tuberculosis as the diagnosis. Is there any evidence to support what we were taught in medical school that consumption was used for an entire range of diseases that caused muscle and fat wasting and general "consuming" of your body. Tuberculosis was just one - whereas others were cancers, well known to cause wasting, and even digestive problems which prevented calories from being absorbed.
    – Praxiteles
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 15:35

4 Answers 4


Expanding on Janus's excellent suggestion (make the search string more context-specific), the "switchover point is much clearer if you graph deaths from consumption/tuberculosis...

enter image description here

So we can reasonably say tuberculosis was already gaining currency before WW1, but by the end of the war it had almost completely displaced consumption. Perhaps because when a major protracted war ends, people want to make a fresh start in terms of language as well as politics and society.

My guess is that the actual cause of the disease (infection by tubercle bacillus) wasn't generally recognised until the turn of the century. The "germ theory" of disease is much associated with Louis Pasteur, 1822 - 1895, but as it says in that link...

During Louis Pasteur's lifetime it was not easy for him to convince others of his ideas, controversial in their time but considered absolutely correct today.

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    Am I seeing things wrong here, or does that image not indicate that deaths from Consumption has been by far the most common use since around 1900, dwarfing all uses of ‘tuberculosis’? That seems very odd! On the actual Ngram itself, the colour-to-word correspondence appears to be reverse (so the major, red curve is ‘tuberculosis’, not ‘Consumption’)—did something go haywire in exporting the image, perhaps? Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 18:02
  • @Janus: Oh dear! I think I'd better re-post the chart! The original image (which you'd get from the text link) looked fine, but for some reason I'd restricted it to US corpus (the effect was just a bit more marked, I think). That seems to have screwed everything up - I never had any reference to case in my query, for example. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 18:35

"Consumptive" appears as a status in the US census (or was written in by the census-taker anyway), in 1870; the location was Brooklyn, although the residents were wealthy and established, and non-immigrants. Going down the page, the status of "consumptive" pops up (twice on the page - my great-great-grandfather's mother-in-law was a consumptive and so was one of her neighbors).


History of tuberculosis

It was called "consumption" because it literally used to consume a person's life but after advancements in medical theory and such... the use of "tuberculosis" started gaining prevalence.

(An extract from John Keat's biography which shows why the disease was called consumption)

"However that might be, Keats was aware of his condition, and the threat to his life. Consumption was not an uncommon illness in those days, and when it developed there was little hope. It was a scourge among all classes of society, and the doctors were impotent. For most sufferers a diagnosis of tuberculosis was a notice of death"

(source: Britannia)

(It could also be because of lackadaisical attitude of people towards medical terms and information flow restriction: conjecture) (there are multiple names for tuberculosis used throughout history due to information restriction and a layman's term must be "consumption".)

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    This is not uninteresting, but it does not answer the actual question, which was when (not why) ‘tuberculosis’ eclipsed ‘consumption’ in normal English language usage. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 19:11

Comsumption is a fairly recent name for TB. Try an NGram search for phthisis, scrofula, White Plague or Pott's disease. After many years of genealogical research I've found Phthisis was the foremost cause of death in Britain until the 1880's when Consumption took over (easier to spell too). TB wasn't widely used in Britain until after 1919.

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    Could you add references or links in your answer, please? I know anyone can take up your suggestion and do a Ngram search for themselves, but I believe the best policy on EL&U is to make answers self-contained.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 12:19

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