Why “acne” comes from a mistake, and what do doctors call “pimples”?

A recent report about acne and depression inspired an exploration of the words associated with the inflammatory affliction. What is the medical name for acne? And how did the slang word “pimple” come about?

Acne is a shortening of the medical term acne vulgaris, a chronic skin condition of the sebaceous glands that is common in adolescence. The symptoms: an outbreak of pimples and comedones. The word acne comes from a misreading of the Greek akmas, “point” or “peak.” You know the term from the word acme. A robust, pointy pimple is the acme of embarrassment for a 15-year-old.

A comedone, or comedo, is more commonly known by the self-describing term “blackhead.” Now, if the mental image that word conjures up makes you a little queasy, turn back now or risk losing your lunch. Comedo comes from the Latin comedere, which means “to eat up;” it was a name once given to worms that devour the body. The medical use of the word referred to the secretions that resemble said worms.

There are various thoughts as to the origin of “pimple.” (Thankfully, none are as gross as comedo.) The more precise medical term is pustule, “a small elevation of the skin containing pus.” Pimple may be a variant of the Old English “pypel” or the Latin “papula.” It is also possibly related to the Old English “pipligende,” which means “having shingles.”

The origin of zit is unknown.

Another great mystery of the body: why is a pinkie called a “pinkie?” And why is does a wedding ring go on the ring finger? Here are some answers.

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