“Oh, my lumbago!”
You know, I used to see that line in cartoons and other fictional things fairly frequently. When? A lumberjack’s years ago… back in the time when Winnebagos were a big thing. But who talks about lumbago now? There’s a whole generation that probably doesn’t even know what it is.
So what is it? Just what’s now commonly referred to as lower back pain. Picture a person stooping forward a bit, hand on their lumbar region, little cartoon stars popping away from it like fireworks. When afflicted by lumbago, you lumber around, bagged, glum and stooped as Gollum, barely ambulatory and most unlikely to gambol. You are like one of those marionettes that are miraculously cured by the oh-so-crisp-sounding Robaxacet (a product of a time when no one says lumbago, though).
But what is the etiology? (Not the etymology – I’ll get to that in a moment.) According to the dusty definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s “A rheumatic affection in the lumbar region of the body.” But if you ask the newer entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Lumbago is considered by health professionals to be an antiquated term that designates nothing more than lower back pain caused by any of a number of underlying conditions.” Muscle strain, herniated disk, sciatica, scoliosis, even some osteoporotic kyphosis… all fall into this catch-all. No wonder it’s not used much anymore.
Well, it really is not a new term. It’s been in English since the 1600s, coming from Latin unaltered in form or sense (except that we say “lum bay go” rather than “loom bah go” as Latin would have it). The root is Latin lumbus ‘loin’. Which provides a good opportunity to remind everyone that although we often use loins to refer to the pubic area, it really in the main is the part of the torso between the hips and the ribs (on comestible quadrupeds too: this is where loin chops come from). The loins are the part you gird – for example, with a weightlifter’s belt. The vertebrae of this stretch are called the lumbar vertebrae. If the lumbar region is in good order, you are limber; if it is as stiff as timber lumber, you may have lumbago.
Except no one really uses that word anymore.