In a word: take the humor out of medicine

In a word: take the humor out of medicine

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Andy Hollandbeck, managing editor and logophile, reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Throughout civilization, mankind has come a long way in the field of medicine. Diseases are no longer blamed on angry gods or treated with bloodletting, but instead are diagnosed by X-rays and CT scans and treated with surgery and antibiotics, and even prevented by sanitation and mRNA vaccinations. Previous scientific theories have been superseded by new discoveries and insights, but the language of those old ideas doesn’t always disappear when the ideas themselves become obsolete.

Take the moods. Two and a half millennia ago, in ancient Greece and Egypt, it was common knowledge among physicians that a person’s temperament and general health were governed by the balance of bodily fluids. In later years, English speakers would call these fluids moods, from Latin humor, which is related to number “to be wet”, the root of the word wet. (This original sense of humor still persists in modern anatomy: the clear jelly that fills the inside of the eyeballs is called vitreous humour. Vitreous It comes from the Latin vithrum “glass.”)

There were different opinions about how many humors the body had, but in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. C., the Greek physician Hippocrates, he of the famous Hippocratic Oath, established in writing his belief that there were four primary humors:

  • Blood: This is perhaps the most obvious of the bodily fluids. In Greek it was jaima, where do we get words like hemoglobin, hemophilia, and in Latin, the blood was called sanguis
  • Phlegm: The word goes back to Greek. phleggeine, which means “to burn”, which is strange because this humor is associated with coldness and dampness.
  • Gall: In Greek, khloros was of a pale green or greenish-yellow color, and it is from this name that we get the humor gall, also called yellow bile. The illness anger It was so named because the diarrhea that accompanied the disease was believed to be caused by bile.
  • Melancholia: the part of the word melano- comes from the Greek word for “black”. Combine that with gall and you get melancholia or, as it is also known, black bile.

Hippocrates and the healers who followed him believed that the internal balance of the mixture of these humors dictated not only a person’s physical health but also their general temperament. (In fact, that word temper Comes from latin tempered “mix, mix”.) This concept, called humoralism – yes, a difficult word to handle, but it helps to separate the humorists from the humorists —was commonly accepted throughout the Middle Ages and even, in some places, as late as the early 19th century.

According to humoralism, if a body contained too much of a particular humor, it created certain temperament traits, and although scientific understanding has relegated humoralism to the halls of history, the vocabulary to describe these imbalances has persisted:

  • Optimistic: An optimistic and hopeful person was thought to have a predominance of blood over the other humors. They were therefore optimistic, from the Latin word for “blood”. Even today, optimistic describes a positive person, as well as the complexion of someone who is flushed, because the blood has run into his face.
  • Phlegmatic: A person described as phlegmatic they are emotionless or difficult to arouse because, according to the principles of humorism, they have an excess of phlegm. (This makes a lot of sense: if I have too much phlegm, it probably means I have a bad cold, and it might take a Herculean effort to wake me up enough to get out of bed.)
  • Choleric: Choleric it does not describe someone who is angry, but someone who is impetuous and unreasonable. Humor says that it is due to an excess of yellow bile. In fact, in modern times, the word bile itself is used metaphorically to mean contempt or wickedness.
  • Melancholic: Too much black bile, says humor, causes feelings of depression or despondency, or what we still call today

Because one’s temperament was controlled by one’s moods, the word humor itself came to mean “mood, temperament”, as in “to be in a good mood”. Over time, the meaning was reduced to “whim, whim” and then to the sense of the comical or funny that most indicates today’s humor.

Humor has really come a long way.

Featured Image: Shutterstock

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