A Good Sense of Humour 

Are you in good humour at the moment? You are? Good! If I’d asked you that question a few hundred years ago though, it would’ve had a somewhat different meaning.

The modern word humour has been around in some form or other for a long time now, though the meaning has become both less specific and more abstract in modern times.

You might be aware that many cultures in ancient times believed in a medical system based on the existence of four humours. These humours were not actually moods, but rather specific fluids which were believed to exist inside the body. They were each associated with a particular temperament though. They were supposed to exist in harmonic balance inside the body, and imbalances in the humours were thought to cause various medical and emotional conditions.

There was blood, which was believed to come from the liver, and associated with sanguinity. We still occasionally say someone’s sanguine, meaning optimistic or positive, particularly in a difficult situation. It’s probably fallen out of use a bit because we tend to relate blood to excitement nowadays: your blood might be up, or you might be hot-blooded, for example.

Yellow bile was thought to come from the spleen, and was associated with a cholic temperament (short-tempered, irritable). We still refer to venting your spleen when you need to rant about something. And particularly hateful speech is still often referred to as bile.

Then there’s black bile, believed to originate in the gallbladder (yes, it’s actually all one word), and associated with melancholy (the word itself derived from the Greek for black bile). It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the belief in black bile is the cause of the longstanding association between black and depression. I wonder if it’s the other way round though, and the darkness associated with depression led to the assumption that it was black bile that, in excess, led to melancholy. You may now be thinking that the word gall, meaning resentment or annoyance, seems quite at odds with melancholy. That’s because the word gall arose later than melancholy, in a time after we’d recognised that the gallbladder actually stores bile, and that black and yellow bile don’t actually exist.

And finally there’s phlegm, though this is not the phlegm we all know and love that lodges in our throat when we have a cold. Rather this was a white fluid believed to originate in the brain and lungs (it’s worth remembering here that people were basically just making all this up), and created a phlegmatic, or apathetic mood. You might still hear someone described as phlegmatic, but it hasn’t survived much beyond the 19th century.

There are a few other ways in which we can still see the effect of the belief in the humours on the English language. Each humour was associated with certain qualities (e.g. moist, dry, warm, cold) and foods displaying such characteristics were prescribed by doctors to remedy a lack or excess. It’s believed that this might be at least partly the reason why we refer to chili peppers as hot, though I think that’s more related to the fact that they feel hot and they make us feel hot. Doubtless though, doctors in the past saw this as evidence of their desired effect on the right humours. This association with certain qualities might also be why not-so-sweet wines are referred to as dry.

Of course though, the obvious legacy of the belief in the humours is the fact that we still use the word humour, though through the normal twists and turns of linguistic evolution it now mainly refers to being funny, rather than moods in general. I wonder if anyone ever describing themselve as having a gsoh ever considered the direct link that could be traced back to doctors in Ancient Greece prescribing dry wine to cure a lack of yellow bile.

16 thoughts on “A Good Sense of Humour 

  1. Great reminder! I was just looking up where ichor fit into the scheme … seems etymologically, in English at least, it came after the humour (and is, of course, godly, rather than human), but then it too came from an Ancient Greek word. Ideas?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s interesting, there seems to be a long gap between the Ancient Greek “ikhor” and when it reappears in medieval French. It’s odd though that as a medical term it referred to an unpleasant discharge, whereas the ancient meaning referred to the fluid of the gods. It feels like there’s a missing etymological link we haven’t discovered.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so interesting! I never knew that. I’m going to show it to my boyfriend, he’s going to love it. Especially the fact that Greek is mentioned in here since he’s Greek. Always learning something new!

    Julia xx

    Liked by 1 person

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