Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Humorous Words

Medieval medicine was based on the classical four-humors theory developed in Greece. In this system, the body contained four humors that reflected the four elements and their properties: blood was air, hot and wet; phlegm was water, cold and wet; black bile was earth, cold and dry; and choler or yellow bile was fire, hot and dry. To cure a patient, a doctor would figure out which of these humors were over-abundant and then counter with the opposite qualities to bring the body fluids into balance. For instance, since many diseases were cold and wet, spices (which were considered to be hot and dry) were often used in medicines. Bleeding was used for diseases that were caused by too much heat and dampness (it was used through the 18th century; George Washington was one person killed by too much bleeding). Although the medieval system fell out of use centuries ago, we still use words associated with it to describe personalities or humors:
  • Sanguine literally means bloody; a hot, wet person is confident and optimistic.
  • Phlegmatic describes a cold and wet person, one who is sluggish and unemotional.
  • Melancholy comes from another name for black bile and describes someone cold and dry: sad, depressed, gloomy.
  • Bilious describes someone with an excess of dryness, someone who is peevish, sour tempered, crabby.
  • Choleric describes someone who is hot and dry, bad-tempered and prone to tantrums.
  • More generally, someone cheerful is said to be in a good humor; someone crabby is said to be in a bad humor.

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