or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Organ Solo

I try very hard to hide it beneath a veneer of civility and descriptivism, but what this blog is all about, deep down inside, is venting my spleen. I can't help it; I'm hypersensitive to English usage and spelling, and sometimes I hear someone say "equally as good" or see a house sign reading "The Smith's" and I just snap. Ask Jim some time how many times I've snarled "'Impact' is not a verb, goddammit!" or "You call yourself a meteorologist and yet you can't even pronounce 'kilometre' correctly?" to the television. When I write, I try to be even-tempered and amusing, and if I can educate people at the same time, that's great, because I like to teach; but I do get pissed off at egregious misuses of the English language, so that usually wrecks any attempt at being nice, and I don't have a whole host of readers, which means the educational opportunities are limited. So mostly it's just the spleen.

Why don't we take a look at the word "spleen"? I've been thinking about it on and off for a couple of days, and now it's your turn.

We need to go right back to the basics for this one. "Spleen", of course, means "irritable ill humour". The word "humour" is related to "humid", which means "moist", since that's exactly what its Latin root, "humere", meant. (It's not related to "humus" or "humble", which are from Latin "humus", "ground" or "earth".) In mediaeval times, a humour was a bodily fluid. (This sense of "humour" remains in medical terms such as "aqueous humour", the fluid inside the eye.) The four humours governed the personality in a complicated but comprehensible way: there were four elements (earth, air, fire, water), four states (hot, cold, wet, dry), and four humours (black bile, phlegm, blood, and yellow bile) produced by four organs (liver, spleen, lungs, gall bladder) which produced various body types and temperaments as follows:

The choleric personality was produced by yellow bile coming from the spleen; it was a product of elemental fire, which was hot and dry, leading to a thin, red-haired body characterized by a violent, ambitious personality.

The sanguine personality was produced by blood coming from the liver; it was a product of elemental air, which was hot and wet, leading to a red-faced, corpulent body characterized by a generous, happy personality.

The phlegmatic personality was produced by phlegm coming from the lungs; it was a product of elemental water, which was cold and wet, leading to a corpulent body characterized by a sluggish, fearful personality.

The melancholic personality was produced by black bile coming from the gall bladder; it was a product of elemental earth, which was cold and wet, leading to a thin, pale body characterized by a sentimental, introspective personality.

Makes just as much sense as reflexology or homeopathy or any other pseudo-scientific nonsense being touted these days, really. Anyway: the Greek word for "bile" was "khole", leading to the word "choleric". "Choler" is an antique word for "ill temper", and that's also a definition of both "spleen" and "bile". See how it all ties together? ("Sanguine" derives from Latin "sanguineus", "blood"; "phlegmatic" obviously comes from "phlegm"--more on the suffix in a moment: and "melancholic" comes from the Greek "melan-", meaning "black", as in "melanin", and "khole", "bile".)

One final note: "spleen", being both a medical word meaning a bodily organ and an everyday word meaning ire, has two different adjectival forms. "Splenetic" has the common medical adjectival suffix "-tic" ("anorectic", "epileptic"), and the more amusing "spleeny" has the usual "-y" ending. They can both be used to describe a pissed-off person.


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