Hysteria — Loaded Word
Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch in his famous “The Scream” (1893) may have depicted what psychiatrists would call “an indeterminate figure” in modern art's most wretched cry of obliterating angst. But Ancient Greeks and more modern men too had the sexist notion that nervous afflictions were peculiar to women and were symptoms of various uterine maladies. Plato imagined that the uterus (Greek hustera or more usually in the Greek plural hai husterai) was a separate spirit and animal part of a woman that only wanted to become pregnant. If it did not, this imaginary uterus-spirit wandered in a fit of mopish pique through the female body causing trouble. When it arrived at the brain, this hystera (womb animal) went totally postal and induced feminine hysterics.
An Attack of “The Vapours”
In case you have dismissed the above fumblings of ancient medical writers as the quaint folly of a bygone day, remember the Victorian British of only a century ago who, before Freud, termed hysteria “an attack of the vapours.” According to Victorian and Edwardian physicians, just what were the vapours? Uterine emanations seeping up from the vagina into milady's brain where they overwhelmed the female body! So corporal knowledge had not come too far in centuries, had it? Compare the early 19th century “delicate” German word Mutterweh ‘mother's affliction.’ This was not a euphemism for menstruation but for hysterics.
Hippocrates: Not the Father of Hysteria
Contrary to what is printed in many histories of medicine, the word hysteria was not coined by the so-called Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, who was far more of a physician and clinician than Plato—no matter what Plato imagined. The word hysteria does not appear in ancient Greek and Hippocrates dates (ca. 460 BCE – ca. 370 BCE) are thus too early.
Hippocrates taught that the cause of what came to be called hysteria was irregular movement of blood from the uterus to the brain. Although such an etiology is incorrect, there is a shred of Hippocratic clinical observation there that far surpasses Plato’s insupportable myth-making. Hippocrates had perhaps observed a person in the throes of a potent conversion reaction and noted the elevation in temperature and engorging of the facial skin. Plato, on the other hand, probably has his slaves drive away with long sticks any unfortunate Greek who was having “a fit.”
Hippocrates celebrated on a modern Greek postage stamp
Etymology of the Word Hysteria
An Ionian word mostly used in the plural as shown above, so that even in ancient Greek husterai was a euphemism whose literal meaning is “the inferior parts” or “the lower parts” ― very much like the modern evasion used by western parents to describe young girls’ genitalia “down there” or other sexist evasions to name a woman's “privy parts” like the Latin pudendum or pudenda, in form a gerundive of obligation meaning literally ‘that of which one ought to be ashamed.’ Compare one of several creepy periphrases in German, die Weiche ‘the soft parts.’ Creepy but slightly more accurate than some other languages' circumlocutionary bibble-babble.
The form hysteria may be Modern Scientific Latin (late 18th-century?) < hustera Greek ‘uterus’ + -ia medical suffix ‘diseased condition of’ <hustera Greek, ‘uterus’ < husteros Greek adjective ‘the latter,the weaker, the inferior’
Etymologist Eric Partridge suggested hustera might have been an elliptical version of hustera metra ‘the lower womb.’ Having examined the uses of husterai in passages of ancient Greek, I think euphemism is a more cogent explanation of the Greek word's origin.
The Latin word uterus, adopted into English, may stem from the same euphemistic Indo-European root, *udteros ‘higher,’ as does the Sanskrit comparative adjective uttáras ‘latter, higher, upper, northern.’ Compare the Hindi name of that flood-prone state in northern India, Uttar Pradesh. Uttar means ‘northern’ and pradesh means ‘region’ or ‘state.’
Roman Catholic Church Finds Good Uses for Hysteria
Hysterical Witches—Those Bitches!
As a disease, hysteria has had a good, lucrative 2,000-year run of popularity. Hysteria worked nicely for the Roman Catholic Church during the pleasantly corrective era of inquisitions. Hundreds of thousands of European women, tortured and burnt at the stake as witches, showed signs of hysteria. So did cheering mobs of Catholic peasants who gathered eagerly around the burning women who screamed in agony as their hair ignited and their fiery clothes seared their already cooking flesh. It was warmly instructive to attend a good people-fire, to watch human legs and arms crisp up nicely as God’s work was conducted by His anointed male fire-brigade of priests and their torch-happy henchmen. All this happened under the benign and divine auspices of what the current pope, a paleoconservative old horror named Ratzinger, has termed the only religious body of believers worthy to bear the name “church.” Ja-wohl, Irhe Hoheit!
Let us not imagine that all hysterical witches were burned upright standing at the stake. Pious Roman Catholic onlookers, quite like holy moderns at a decent fireworks display, demanded variety in presentation. So turning a nude woman on a spit was also ordained by those priests in closest touch to their Lord. That way one could watch the human beings’ skin roast and split like pork cracklings. It is recorded that the assembled firewatchers sang hymns to drown out the young girls’ screams of pain. Some ancient version, I imagine, of “Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam.”
I have already received emails of outrage that I should even bring up notes from The Inquisition. One little lily of piety who works for CBC TV suggested that we ought to forget such slight past errors. Maybe she's correct? Maybe we should forget the Inquisition and The Holocaust?
Yeah, let's be positive for a change and all sit watching steroid-hockey games or some happy television program, like one of the CBC's new contest shows. I hear CBC TV has a winner this fall, “Defecating for Dollars.” Apparently it involves a giant golden winch and a chair, plasticized floor targets and contestants swaying on cables high above the studio floor, all contestants fitted with prune-juice intravenous drips. I know I'll be watching, and thanking my lucky stars that we finally have women and men of vision leading the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation bravely toward a future of maximum sewership...er...viewership.
Nevetheless, I think I'll leave our wee televisual Bambi to watch reruns of Mr. Rogers. I will conclude my inquisitory interval with one more historical note. When they were not busy burning young women and buggering altarboys, some of these Roman Catholic inquisitors displayed a zeal for scientific notation that would have made Darwin himself proud.
Here is a Spanish priest's notation: “I have observed that the breasts of lactating women tend to explode when the fire is high.”
In all the horror of human history, I have never read a more obscene, evil sentence. That it was written by a Roman Catholic priest is all I EVER have to know about our very unholy mother, the Church of Rome.
Doubters? Peruse some of the historical record preserved in the following volumes.
Books about the Inquisition
Hysteria Comes of Age
During the Age of Reason there was a decline in attention to hysteria, but this was corrected by a big revival of hysterics at the birth of psychoanalysis. Indeed the first psychoanalytic document is often thought to be the one below.
FREUD, Sigmund and Joseph BREUER. Studien über Hysterie. Leipzig and Vienna : Franz Deuticke, 1895. This is Freud's and Breuer's account of their discovery of the profound benefits of "free association," in part a result of their clinical experience with hysterics. This is the founding paper of psychoanalysis.
What is Hysteria Called Now?
Today it is usually labeled conversion disorder. Be aware that this is an extremely difficult diagnosis to authenticate. Here is one explanation from the internet: "This is a psychological conflict converted into a bodily disturbance. It is distinguished from hypochondria by the fact that sufferers do not generally confuse their condition with real, physical disease. Conversion disorder is usually found in patients with immature, histrionic personalities who are under great stress. Women are affected twice as frequently as men. Symptoms, which are largely symbolic and which relieve the patient’s anxiety, include limb paralysis, blindness, or convulsive seizures. The specific physical disorder usually does not correspond to the anatomy; e.g., an entire limb may be paralyzed rather than a specific group of muscles. The person may also appear to be unconcerned about the illness, a condition French psychiatrist Pierre Janet called la belle indifference (1929). At the end of the nineteenth century, great advances were made in the understanding and cure of hysteria by the recognition of its psychogenic nature and by the use of hypnotism to influence the hysteric patient, who is known to have a high degree of suggestibility.
The Austrian physician Josef Breuer ,the French psychologists J. M. Charcot and Pierre Janet, and Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud were pioneers in the investigation of hysteria through hypnosis. Freud concluded that hysterical symptoms were symbolic representations of a repressed unconscious event, accompanied by strong emotions that could not be adequately expressed or discharged at the time. Instead, the strong effect associated with the event was diverted into the wrong somatic channels (conversion), and the physical symptom resulted. Psychoanalysis has had reasonable success in helping patients suffering from conversion disorder.”
Even in the reasonably even-handed note above, note that women are still the chief hysterics. The diagnosis of hysteria, which was the most common psychiatric label applied to women up until the 1930s, continues to oink its way through shrinks’ offices. Thank goodness, horrible surgical procedures like clitoridectomy are no longer suggested as methods of treatment!
For such reasons, and because its diagnosis had much to do with misogynist feelings on the part of male psychiatrists, nowadays hysteria is not generally accepted as a legitimate term for a mental disorder. The use of hysteria as a diagnostic label has declined in western countries almost to zero grade. Hysteria, for example, is no longer listed as a disease in the DSM IV; This is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition, published under the auspices of the American Psychiatric Association. In the seventeenth edition of the Merck Manual, hysteria no longer has a separate entry.
But hysteria and its adjective hysterical are still current and widespread in ordinary speech, and met in historical medical literature. The word is on the way out of legitimate medical vocabulary and that is a just victory for those want to purge medical terminology and practice of male chauvinist notions. Today most psychiatrists consider hysteria to be, in the current charming euphemism of the shrink trade, a legacy diagnosis. Translation: Hysteria has become through ignorant overuse an almost clinically meaningless, catch-all term, much like schizophrenia.
Two useful books:
A. Roy, ed., Hysteria (1982)
E. Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997)
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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My Dictionary of Medical Derivations
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copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman