Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Four Humors

The Greeks loved to classify things, personality types included. With modern science and psychology not yet developed, they relied on other ideas to reach conclusions about human behavior. The theory of the four humors is one such example. Fluids, or χυμοι (humoi) in Greek (bet you didn't ever think that humor and humid were related, eh?) were the starting point for an interesting theory on distinct personality types. Originally credited to Hippocrates, other Greeks went on to classify four different personality types. The fluids involved: phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile. Balance is of course the ideal, but life is not always ideal...and from there these personality types emerge.

The English words used to describe the humors mainly have Greek roots.

phlegmatic types are characterized by too much phlegm! This makes them slow and sluggish. They are also considered peaceful, agreeable types, if sometimes a bit on the unemotional side. From Greek, Latin, phlegma (φλέγμα).

sanguine people are really cheerful! When first encountering the word "sanguine", I instantly recognized the root as "sanguis", Latin for blood, but didn't understand where the correlation to cheerful lay. Well, the Greeks sure saw it. Nice, ruddy people, overrun with blood makes them passionate, confident, and optimistic.

note of interest: the Greek word for blood is αιμα (haima) (think hemophiliac...); here we've got the Latin root.

melancholy people tend toward sadness. Thanks, black bile, for putting such a glum bent on the world. From Greek μελας, melas, "black", + χολη, kholé, "bile".

choleric types can be downright temperamental, irritable, and aggressive. This is due to the spleen, producer of yellow bile (or choler), and the seat of ill temper in classical thought.

additional note: choleric types are interchangeably called splenetic types.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blessing and Sacrifice: the violent vocabulary of religion

First of all, I apologize for taking a brief break from the history of the English language. It will be back next week; I assure you, I love nothing more than talking about the linguistic importance of the Norman Conquest. (Seriously.) For the time being, however, I am out of the country, and therefore away from most of my research materials. And by “out of the country” I mean “typing this entry on my laptop from a hammock in Cancun.” Yes, I am just that dedicated.

Today I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum, a spectacular archaeological site built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. Our tour guide (who insisted we refer to him as Tortuga “because I have the shell in the front”) is married to a Mayan woman, and was full of interesting information about the living Mayan language and culture. He described the ancient rituals as aggressive and frightening to the conquering Spaniards—warriors who deformed their craniums and filed their teeth to points, human sacrifice, that sort of thing. The Spanish saw them as an evil people who needed to be converted to Catholicism posthaste, said Tortuga. “Not that it excuses what they did, but they felt they had reasons.”

This got me to thinking about the violent vocabulary of religion (lest you thought I was merely rambling.) Few subjects will polarize and incense a people more quickly than religion, and the very words we use for it are sometimes more bloodthirsty than we suspect. I am reminded of William Funk’s derivation of the fairly tame word “bless,” for instance. (Cited from Word Origins and their Romantic Stories, an excellent book despite being somewhat dated. Actually, being somewhat dated makes it even more appealing from a historical perspective—I was interested to note how much semantic shift had taken place even since its first printing in 1950.)

“Bless” comes from Old English blóedsian, blédsian, blétsian and, according to the OED, was formed in OE alone off the Teutonic stem blôdo-m, “blood.” “To bless” originally meant “to mark with blood” or “to consecrate”—a strong allusion to the purifying blood sacrifice. The OED goes on to explain that it was chosen to render the Latin benidicere, which in turn came from the Hebrew root brk, “to bend.” In the same word, we have praise (“bless” was also used for Greek eulogein, whence “eulogy”—assuming, of course, that we speak well of the dead), bending in submission, and consecration through spilt blood; a loaded concept, this blessing.

“Sacrifice” itself, by the way, comes from sacri-, sacer “sacred” + -ficus, from facere, “to make, to do.” The OED’s first definition of “sacrifice” is “primarily, the slaughter of an animal (often including the subsequent consumption of it by fire) as an offering to God or a deity. Hence, in wider sense, the surrender to God or a deity, for the purpose of propitiation or homage, of some object of possession.” Here we see the same concept inherent in blessing—through bloodshed, through consumption, through passion (built on pat , “to suffer”) are things made holy.

The Mayas were converted to Catholicism at the hands of the conquistadors, and Colleen P. Popson speaks of “the coercive tactics of conversion” (
0301/abstracts/letter.html): torture, burning, the supplanting of a culture. My question is this—what do these words say about the nature of religion? Is sacrifice necessary for holiness? Is violence?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

tantalize // venereal

Taking a slight detour from Susan's post (although, have no fear, she'll be back with more history shortly), I'm going to look at the sources of a couple words. Just as the language is steeped in a rich history, so too are the words. In fact, some of our words are of mythological origin. Take the word "tantalize", for example.

Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus (one of many, due to Zeus's frequent dalliances). As with many myths, the story differs as to what he did to earn eternal damnation, but suffice it to say, he's stuck in Tartarus, the deepest layer of the underworld. Below him lies a pool of water, but when he dips his head to take a drink, the pool drains away. Above him dangles lovely fruit, only to be whisked away when he reaches for it. His punishment is to be forever tempted, never other words, tantalized.

And yes, the word "venereal", as in "venereal disease", is indeed related to the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus.

This post wasn't written entirely by memory; I checked my facts in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.