[ lep-er ]
/ ˈlɛp ər /
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a person who has leprosy.
a person who has been rejected or ostracized for unacceptable behavior, opinions, character, or the like; anathema; outcast.
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Origin of leper

1350–1400; Middle English lepre leprosy <Latin lepra<Greek lépra, noun use of feminine of leprós scaly, akin to lépos scale, lépein to peel
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does leper mean?

Leper is a word for a person who has leprosy, an infectious skin disease.

Leprosy causes bumps and wounds on and under the skin that gradually spread and can cause muscle weakness, nerve damage, and paralysis. If not treated effectively, it can result in the loss of body parts and eventually death.

Leprosy is also called Hansen’s disease, which is the name preferred by many medical professionals. It’s caused by a kind of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can be cured with a treatment of antibiotics and other drugs.

Cases of leprosy have been documented since ancient times. Due to its severe effects and contagiousness, many people who have had the disease throughout history have been stigmatized and treated as outcasts.

Due to this stigma, the word leper came to be used in a more figurative way to mean an outcast or someone who is excluded, especially for behavior or opinions considered unacceptable, as in Ever since I expressed my opinion, I’ve been treated like a leper around here. 

However, both the figurative and literal senses of the word can be considered insensitive due to the fact that they can dehumanize those who have the disease. It is typically recommended to use a phrase like “a person with Hansen’s disease” instead of leper.

Where does leper come from?

The first records of the word leper come from around the 1300s. It comes from the Greek word leprós, “scaly,” which is related to lépein, “to peel.” The word leprosy isn’t recorded until around the 1500s, but descriptions of a disease thought to be leprosy date back much further—it’s even mentioned in the Bible. These may have influenced the figurative use of leper, which is first recorded around the 1400s.

Throughout history, leprosy has been a feared disease. Today, it can be effectively treated with antibiotics and other drugs, but advances in its treatment only came about in the early 1900s, due to contributions by African American chemist Alice Ball and others. In 2000, the World Health Organization declared that leprosy is no longer a public health problem on a global scale, meaning that cases of it have dropped to a low level, but hundreds of thousands of people are still diagnosed with it each year.

The skin and nerve damage that the disease can cause can be permanent, so early diagnosis is key. Before there was an effective treatment, those who didn’t die from the disease still had their bodies greatly damaged from it. Because it was often thought to be highly contagious, people with leprosy were often forced to live in communities known as leper colonies, further establishing the figurative usage of the word.

Hansen’s disease is named for Gerhard Hansen, the Norwegian doctor and bacteriologist who determined in the 1870s that leprosy is caused by the bacterium now known as Mycobacterium leprae.

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What are some words that often get used in discussing leper?


How is leper used in real life?

Leper is most commonly used in a figurative way. In a medical context, its literal use is often avoided in favor of a phrase like “a patient with Hansen’s disease.”



How to use leper in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for leper

/ (ˈlɛpə) /

a person who has leprosy
derogatory a person who is ignored or despised

Word Origin for leper

C14: via Late Latin from Greek lepra, noun use of lepros scaly, from lepein to peel

usage for leper

Rather than talking about a leper or lepers, it is better to talk about a person with leprosy and people with leprosy
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012