Words at Play

Humorless Words for the Bodily Humors

From the sanguine to the downright choleric
31 Aug 2019

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noun, in medieval physiology : a fluid or juice of an animal or plant specifically : one of the four fluids entering into the constitution of the body and determining by their relative proportions a person's health and temperament

That's right: before humor was funny, a humor was something that could be described as a fluid or juice of an animal or plant. It was the Middle Ages, after all, and things could be downright medieval sometimes.

It all got started long before medieval times though. While it was still the established thinking in the European Middle Ages, the physiological theory of the humors dates to ancient Greece, with the four cardinal humors being blood, phlegm, choler (aka yellow bile), and melancholy (aka black bile). The particular mixture of the four humors in a particular individual was thought to determine that person's temperament as well as their mental and physical qualities. Ideally, you wanted to have a perfectly proportioned mixture of the four humors; if you didn't, you'd skew toward being too much one way or not enough another. (More on that below).

The word humor traces back to Latin humor or umor, meaning "moisture," which gets us pretty easily to the "fluid" meaning of the English word, but how did we get to the funny-related meanings of humor? Well, the physiological use referring to the four cardinal humors eased into a use of humor to mean "temperament, disposition," which led to "mood," which got us to "whim, fancy," and eventually to a plural use referring to actions that reveal the oddities or quirks of human temperament—such humors being especially suited for comedic theatrical presentation. The audience saw the humors of a character and they were whimsical, eccentric, and often funny. Soon after, the sense referring to the ability to be funny or to be amused by things that are funny developed.

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adjective : having blood as the predominating bodily humor; also : having the bodily conformation and temperament held characteristic of such predominance and marked by sturdiness, healthy red complexion, and cheerfulness

When sanguine first entered the English language back in the 14th century it was with a meaning of "bloodred," but it quickly developed its humorless humor meaning. A sanguine person was thought to have lots of the blood body humor and was therefore especially sturdy, cheerful, and ruddy-cheeked. Lest the sanguine types start feeling too good about themselves, the "blood" origins of the word sanguine (its ultimate origin, via Anglo-French, is Latin sanguin-, sanguis, meaning "blood") have also given the word some less-flattering meanings like "bloodthirsty" (as in "sanguine warriors") and "bloody" ("sanguine battles").

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adjective 1 : resembling, consisting of, or producing the humor phlegm 2 : having or showing a slow and stolid temperament

Unlike sanguine, which hides its bloody origins well enough to make it seem suitable for describing a person without anyone taking offense, phlegmatic has the word phlegm (ew!) RIGHT THERE. And yet the word persists in being applied to people by such esteemed (but dead) writers as Shakespeare, Swift, Melville, Eliot (George), Brontë (both Anne and Charlotte), Twain, and Dickens.

Living writers like it all right too:

Seamus sometimes glanced at Melinda for a reaction, but she always looked attentively phlegmatic, giving nothing away.
— Sarah Frisch, "Housebreaking," The Paris Review, Winter 2012

There's no point in shying away from it now, so we'll just go there: phlegm in its humorless humor meaning refers to the humor that is cold and moist and thought to cause sluggishness. That use dates to the 13th century, and while the word didn't refer in a narrower sense simply to mucus (or, as it does now, particularly to cough-produced mucus) until the end of the 14th century, the humor-phlegm was often identified with mucus.

We'd like to tell you that at this point the gross stuff in this article is over now, but it's just not true.

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adjective, obsolete : having yellow bile as the predominating bodily humor; also : having the bodily conformation and temperament thought to be characteristic of such predominance

Choleric is the adjectival form of the noun choler, which in humorless-humor use refers to yellow bile, a substance believed to be secreted by the liver and to cause the general anger and irritability more formally known as irascibility. (The word choler comes from cholera, which refers to a bacterial intestinal infection with often deadly consequences.)

We weren't there when people were coming up with these humorless humors, but we wonder about the choleric one. Were the folks being identified as choleric feeling super (and increasingly) irascible because of all the discussion about their liver secretions? We don't know. What we do know is that the word choleric has described those easily moved to often unreasonable or excessive anger since the mid-16th century.

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adjective, obsolete 1 : of, relating to, being, or associated with the presence or secretion of black bile 2 : causing or constituting the melancholy that is associated with disordered secretion of black bile

In current use, the word melancholic is about depression and sadness; it describes people who are depressed and things that tend to depress people. The word's origin, however, is in the Greek word melancholía, meaning "black bile." Black bile is to the kidneys and spleen what yellow bile (above) is to the liver: it's a humor believed to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen and to cause melancholy.

Melancholic is the last of the four adjectival humorless-humor descriptors but we're nowhere near the end here.

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adjective, obsolete : having an improperly functioning spleen : afflicted with excessive spleen secretion

Now that we're deep into all these humorless-humor words, you won't be surprised to know that the obsolete meaning of splenetic above led to the now-archaic meaning of "given to melancholy." But while melancholic points to the humor itself, splenetic pins the blame on the organ that produces the humor: the Latin word for "spleen" is splen, source of both spleen and splenetic. The semantic developments of both words suggest some big feelings regarding the organ itself. Splenetic moved on from its "given to melancholy" meaning to develop its current meaning of "marked by bad temper, malevolence, or spite." And spleen has over the years referred not only to the vascular organ that destroys worn-out red blood cells and produces white blood cells, but also to the following: the seat of emotions; violent mirth or merriment; laughter and the source of laughter; a fit of anger, malice, or bad temper; a whim or caprice; a capricious temper; a proud courageous impetuous temper; impetuosity and high-spiritedness; latent malevolence; a grudge; and extreme lowness of spirits. Melville's Ishmael knew this last use:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Moby Dick, 1851

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adjective 1 : given to or marked by melancholy : gloomy 2 : ill-natured, peevish

Atrabilious comes directly from Latin, in which language atra bilis means "black bile." This word is the third of our series to concern the humor secreted by the kidney or spleen, and like splenetic its semantic development began with melancholy and ended with irritability.

Atrabilious is by no means a common word, but it has a closely-related synonym that is rarer still: atrabilarious seems to us ripe for revival with a new use that plays off of its rhyming relationship with hilarious. You know, for all the hilarious atrabilarious types out there. Lol.

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adjective : lacking courage : cowardly

While most of our humorless-humor adjectives describe those thought to have an excess of a particular humor, being low on a particular humor can have consequences as well. If, for example, your liver isn't secreting enough yellow bile you won't be choleric at all—in fact, you'll lack courage entirely. You'll also (theoretically) have a liver as white as a lily. Hence the word lily-livered.

Shakespeare's Macbeth (not the nicest guy by any account) lobbed the word at a servant who was feeling apprehensive at the approach of 10,000 enemy soldiers:

Go prick thy face and over-red thy fear,

Thou lily-liver'd boy. What soldiers, patch?

Death of thy soul! Those linen cheeks of thine

Are counselors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

"Whey-face"? What a jerk.

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adjective : expelling gas from the stomach or intestines so as to relieve flatulence or abdominal pain or distension

When your humors are out of balance, you need a little something to help you out. Enter the adjective (and noun) carminative. A carminative agent, aka a carminative, helps the body expel gas from the stomach or intestines so you feel better. The word comes from Latin carminare, which means "to card." Card in this case is not about poker or rummy; it's about carding fibers—that is, cleansing, disentangling, and collecting together those fibers to prepare them for spinning into yarn. The theory behind carminative is that humors can be combed out like knots in wool. Ouch?

(The word is unrelated to carmine, which refers to any of several shades of red and comes possibly from Arabic qirmiz, meaning "kermes"—a red insect-derived dye, and Latin minium, meaning "cinnabar.")

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adjective : exhibiting or influenced by envy, distaste, or hostility

The adjective jaundiced has another medical meaning as well: "affected with or as if with jaundice," with jaundice being (in simple terms) a condition in which excess bile pigments in the bloodstream and body tissues cause a person's skin to turn yellow.

Bile being what it is in the theory of humorless humors, readers at this point should know just where this is going: a build-up of bile surely results in a personality problem. In this case, too much bile (and it's the yellow kind, naturally) means envy and general surliness.

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noun : the combination of the hot, cold, moist, and dry qualities held in medieval physiology to determine the quality of a body

And you thought your complexion was something to be slathered with creams and lotions. While the word today most often refers to the color or appearance of facial skin, or to the general appearance or character of something (as in "the complexion of the neighborhood"), it entered the language with a humorless-humor meaning.

Coming ultimately from Latin complecti, meaning "to embrace, to comprise (a multitude of objects)," the word entered English in the days of Middle English and from Anglo-French to refer to the combination of qualities—hot, cold, moist, and dry—that were understood to determine the quality of a body and to correlate in various combinations with the humors.

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adjective, archaic : of a gloomy appearance or disposition

Adust may suggest dustiness to the modern reader, but the word's meaning lies at the nexus of the humorless humors and the Latin word adūrere, "to scorch, burn up, cauterize." When adust entered the English language in the early 15th century it described a medical condition in which a humor became heated or combusted, which: not good. The humor thought to be most susceptible to becoming adust was black bile—that is, the one that causes melancholy. Get some adust black bile going and you are going to be one gloomy soul.

Francis Bacon, however, was concerned about yellow bile (aka choler) becoming adust too:

Ambition is like choler; which is an humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust and thereby malign and venomous. So ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased, when things go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince, or state.
— Francis Bacon, Essays, 1597

Of course we 21st century speakers of English no longer worry about anyone's yellow bile becoming so heated or combusted that the person is turned malign or venomous. We just wish such people could develop a sense of (modern) humor.




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