Friday, 4 March 2016

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. Or maybe not, in this case …


At-ruh-bil-ee-uhs: Adjective: gloomy; morose; melancholy; morbid; (Rare) irritable; bad-tempered; splenetic.

Related forms: atrabiliousness or atrabiliar, noun; atrabiliary, adjective, atrabilarian, noun (a person much given to melancholy; a hypochondriac – the first case would be someone like John Donne who, when he wasn’t writing soppy poetry, went mooning around with what we Northerners would refer to as “a face on him like a slapped backside”; whereas the second is more your Hans Christian Andersen, who was one of those constantly convinced that they’re coming down with something or other of a fatal nature, until things got to the stage where he would visit his doctor and describe his symptoms, only to have the good physician look up wearily from his notes and say, “Come now, Mr Andersen, you’ve been telling us fairy tales, haven’t you?”)

Rum sort of word all round, atrabilious, and rather akin to a number of others, such as pulchritude, where the term itself gives no real indication of what the utterer may actually be getting at, apart from the fact that, if he – or, heaven forbid, she even – has casually tossed it into the conversation, then you can be absolutely certain that what you are dealing with here is a regular know-it-all wiseacre of the first water, of the type whose braggadocio fanfaronade we all of us deplore. Pulchritude, by-the-bye, and as you probably already know, means physical beauty – from pulcher, by all accounts – but it’s not as if we’re likely to roam around the place expressing opinions along the lines of, “that young lady exudes an unmistakeably pulchritudinous quality,” are we, lads? Not unless we happen to fancy the idea of our cheek burning redly aglow with the imprint of the flat of her hand, we’re not. Like atrabilious, pulchritude is one for laying down and avoiding altogether.

With atrabilious, however, at least the -bilious part provides us with some sort of clue as to what’s going on, seeing we’re all familiar enough with that word and, almost certainly, have even experienced the feeling a time or two, that queasiness during which there is an almost irresistible urge to evacuate the contents of one’s stomach, generally on occasions such as when the Prime Minister gets to his feet at Conference and, having dabbed an onion copiously to his eyes, blubs piteously about how much he suffered in the sad case of his own ill-fated son before going on to announce to all poverty-stricken parents everywhere, “Now it’s your turn.” And even managing to throw in the phrase “hardworking families” whilst he’s at it. In other words, wanting to throw up. That’s what we understand by bilious. Isn’t it? In actual fact, the biliousness in this case contains more than a smidgen of peevishness or downright bad temper so, given that it’s a direct Latin translation of the Greek word melancholy – the Greeks invented it, it seems, and nostalgia – the suggestion would be that whenever the Ancient Greeks got a bit down-in-the-dumps they’d sit around on clifftops staring wistfully out to sea and thinking back to the good old days, whereas your Roman in the same situation would be far more likely to go round slamming all the doors before stomping off to crucify someone or other in the hope of cheering themselves up.

Alas, though, such an image would be mere chimera – as the Greeks might say – for, while the Greek melancholy, from melas meaning black plus khole meaning bile, and the Latin atrabilious both amount to the same thing – black bile – the latter is of seventeenth century coinage and has nothing to do with the poor old Romans at all, who probably got to feeling just as morose and forlorn as anyone else when it came down to it. Still, nothing that a spot of scourging or crucifixion couldn’t sort out in next to no time, we’ll be bound. Perhaps we shouldn’t constantly harp on about the Romans and their methods of punishment and execution, seeing they gave us lots of other things besides, some of them highly cultural. Where would we be without the aqueduct, for instance? Which, by lucky good hap, also chances to be just about the right height for lobbing a Christian off in an emergency situation, if push came to shove. Which it probably would in such circumstances. Back with atrabilious though, it’s one of only a very few words of ours that take the atra root for black, another being atrocious – basically black-hearted – though the atra itself is rooted in a similar term, ater, meaning fire, this being because at the time when they were busy thinking up words for stuff, anything anywhere within smoking distance of the hearth would end up black with soot, chimneys only putting in an appearance around the Twelfth Century. Atrium is another one, for precisely the same reason, this originally being what the Romans would call an open hall, which usually came complete with central fire. And accompanied by suitably all-over smutted walls. So, the next time you’re being shown round some premises or other that has got far too big for its boots and the guide giving you the waffle all about it just happens to mention with affected insouciance almost as an aside that, “this, as you can perceive, is the atrium,” be standing by with the swift riposte of, “not very black, though, is it?” That should dampen his bonfire in a post-micturitional fashion and no mistake. Might even make the blighter a tad atrabilious too.

Whilst our main concern on this occasion is with gloom and misery – and, after six years of unrelenting Conservative misrule, who can blame us? – we must just spare time for a quick word on nostalgia. As it goes, the Ancient Greeks didn’t really invent the concept after all – well, be fair, back then there wasn’t very much in the Good Old Days line for them to be wistfully hankering after, mainly because there wasn’t very much actual History either at that stage to go peering into. Unless you count the Stone Age, of course, and nobody’s got fond enough reminiscences of that to want to make a return to those days, and even the Tories only want to take us as far back as the early Victorian era. In fact, the term nostalgia was coined only in 1668 – allegedly, which makes it just after the Plague and the Great Fire – by Johannes Hofer, a medical student, so the story goes, which he used to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Now, we know what you must be thinking on seeing the term “Swiss mercenaries” – that it surely belongs in the category of those implausible others, such as “Living Marxism” or “Socialist Worker” or “the cheque’s in the post,” and even “tax applied for” – but there really were such things and, it seems, the Swiss soldiers did have something of an iffy time of it back then.

We should explain that the word nostalgia is a Greek construction, made up of algos, pain or distress – used here to signify an actual illness, as in neuralgia and otalgia (earache) – and nostos, homecoming, nest being similarly rooted, and making the whole mean violent homesickness, which the Swiss were particularly prone to, it seems. Mind you, they did like to indulge in the singing of the Kuhreihen, a melody played on a horn by Alpine herdsman as they were driving cattle, but which made the soldiers long for home so much that they would desert their posts or even pine to death, so it had to be put a stop to, on pain of severest punishment. With the help of Rousseau, the whole Swiss suffering notion made it into Romantic literature, which led to enthusiasm for Switzerland in general and a significant bucking-up of their tourist industry.

Now, someone who really was a firm believer in the whole black bile business was the Greek physician, Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), who was also pretty big when it came to the ancient medical concept of the Four Humours – the word meant something altogether different in those times and, rather like Ant & Dec today, had absolutely nothing to do with wit or laughter – the idea being that if a person had an excess or deficiency of any one of these humours, it would lead to sickness. The four were: black bile, yellow bile – they were keen on their bile, the old Greeks – phlegm (that meant something different too) and blood, these being closely associated with the Four Elements (earth, air, fire and water) and leading to the theory of the Four Temperaments, in which personality types were largely down to having overdone it with one or other of the humours. These types being: melancholic (miserygut full of woe); choleric (bad-tempered, pushy and loutish); phlegmatic (calm, thoughtful and patient); and sanguine (hopeful and carefree). And it’d be a fair bet right now to suggest that what you just did then was to try to work out which one you are, didn’t you? And then pooh-poohed the whole thing as ancient old claptrap. For the record, the word temperament comes from the Latin, temperare, to mix and, in an ideal personality, say Donald Trump for instance, the humours will be exactly balanced: he hates all foreigners, no matter where they come from, and you can’t get more even-handed than that, eh Mr President?

Hippocrates, of course, is known for his Oath. Not that he was forever cussing like a trooper if he happened to hit his thumb with a hammer, but for the one that doctors swear even now, even if they have changed the words a bit since then. He is also known as the Father of Medicine, though his name – actually Hippocrates II, seeing yet again the dad had the same one – comes from hippos, horse, and kratos, power (as in democracy), giving him the wonderfully souped-up appellation of “Horse Power.” He was radical enough to decide that medicine and religion were actually separate disciplines, and rather cocked a snook at the idea that diseases were punishments handed down by the gods, believing instead that they were caused by environmental factors such as life-style and diet, a notion we still cling to today, despite having been told clearly and in no uncertain terms that all the ills of the world are caused by the Mexicans not having been walled into their own country. His work – Hippocrates, not the Comb-Over Cretin – On the Physician, recommended that physicians always be well-kempt, honest, calm, understanding and serious. And that he (they didn’t have shes in those days) should pay careful attention to all aspects of his practice: lighting, personnel, instruments, techniques, and even positioning of the patient and the precise length fingernails should be kept at. Oddly enough, and as you’ve probably spotted, nothing there at all about Must Work Weekends, but that’s Jeremy Hunt for you: he might know far less than a boiled potato about medicine but, let’s face it, he Always Knows Best. Hippocrates also went in for taking note of patients’ symptoms and even introduced the taking of the pulse, though he used it to find out whether or not that patient was lying. Just for the record – once again – the Hippocratic Oath does not contain, as popular misconception will have it, the phrase Primum non nocere (First do no harm), though it’s one that the Secretary of State for Health might want to mull over whilst he’s not doing all that much this weekend. ­

Acting rather like the Secretary of State for Health on a hospital visit ourselves now, we’re going to start whizzing rapidly through it, the difference here being that, in our case, most of us will be at least making a half-decent pretence at any kind of interest and not just thinking about what parts we’re going to savagely cut back on, just as soon as ever we get out of the stench of anaesthetic and sick people. We’re now going to take a quick look at some of the other terms and phrases associated with feeling down-in-the-dumps. Which, according to our beloved Prime Minister in his latest piece of sparkling dispatch box banter (designed solely to avoid an awkward question about his mother), is where Jeremy Corbyn gets most of his suits from. Inevitably, it was left up to the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to point out that the quality of any suit and its so-called “decency” is of no import whatsoever if all that’s inside it is over-rehearsed vacuous platitudes exuding from a mean-spirited mound of privileged lard.

Let’s start with forlorn. Which was actually going to be this time’s Word, seeing it’s a rather poetic one that has been sadly neglected and could do with making a comeback – so, please, do your bit to make that happen. Alas, however, it turns out that, much like the LibDems, there’s not all that much behind it in the end. Naturally enough, the Greeks are at the back of it, with their luein, to release, which we changed in slow stages to forloren, disgraced or depraved, the for- meaning completely and the loren lost, giving it more the sense of far too bad to bother with. That was back in the Twelfth Century but, by about 1580, it had come to mean the more familiar wretched or miserable – rather like your average LibDem, in fact. More often than not, it gets coupled with hope to make forlorn hope, though it seems that this is a mashed-up translation from the Dutch, verloren hoop, the hoop referring to a troop or band but literally meaning heap, giving the phrase the unnerving sense of suicide mission, at which, once again, LibDem springs readily to mind …

Then there’s sombre – dismal or melancholy – which comes from Latin this time: sub, under, plus umbra, shadow, so anything sombre is under a shadow or in the gloom. Rather like someone who happens to be wearing a sombrero, which comes from the same root, though it originally stood for and umbrella or parasol. Also from the same root, we get umbrage, which generally has two bedfellows whenever we come across it, one being take, the other great – no half measures where your umbrage is concerned but always “he took great umbrage” at the remark, which also generally implies that some flouncing off will not be far away. Back in the Fifteenth Century, umbrage had no displeasure associated with it and a fellow taking umbrage was merely parking himself comfortably under the nearest leafy tree. By the 1600s – the period of the Powder Treason, the Plague, the Great Fire and the Civil War – they found themselves in rather more need of a term for feeling a bit cheesed, though one that also implied this was some other blighter’s fault so that you could, indeed, flounce off and yet still maintain the moral high ground nonetheless.

And we’d best include “Feeling Blue,” while we’re at it. Why should we? Feel blue, that is, rather than mauve or grey or even green? Well, there’re more theories than you can point a stick at being bandied about on this one – incidentally, the phrase bandied about comes from the French, bander, which originally had the sense of to band together as in gang up against, then became exchanging blows and finally softened down into a term for knocking a tennis ball back and forth. Bandy was also an Irish precursor to hockey, which used a curved stick of the same name, hence bandy-legged – so, getting to the bottom of feeling blue will be much like playing Call My Bluff, where it’s up to you to spot which are bluffs and which the truth. If any. Blue meaning sad was used as far back as the late 1300s and some folk postulate that this was because blue related to rain – if such were the case, why aren’t all umbrellas blue? – the Greeks (them again) believing that Zeus would make it rain when he was sad. Or crying. The blues – plural, low spirits – was first recorded in 1741 and had something to do with a blue demon known to be on the baleful side. Mind you, Chaucer got in much earlier during his Complaint of Mars, in which his was the first recorded usage of blue to mean sad, which some – do feel free to pooh-pooh whenever the urge strikes – believe may have been reinforced by the notion that anxiety produces a livid skin colour. Most fanciful of all, and yet all the more credible for that, is the one about it being a tradition on board ship that, if she lost her captain or any officer during the voyage, they would fly blue flags and paint a blue band along the entire length of the hull. We should cocoa …

It seems we’re going to have to miss out many a suitable contender herein, including lugubrious, which is just a posh – or pompous – way of saying excessively mournful, and which started life as leug, to break or cause pain, so the Romans (for whom pretty much all they did caused breakages and pain) used it in the form of lugere, to mourn. They may have inflicted pain aplenty but at least they were lugubrious about it afterwards. Anyhow, we’re going to leave the last word to dudgeon, which really means two words then, seeing this is another that never turns up alone. You never hear of someone leaving in plain old dudgeon, or of being a tad dudgeoned, only ever of being in high dudgeon. The odd thing is that nobody knows where the deuce the word came from, though Shakespeare somehow managed to shoehorn it into Macbeth: “I see thee still, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood.” At one time, dudgeon was the name of a wood, possibly box, that was used when turning handles for knives and daggers, so it may refer to someone’s gander being so up that he resorts to raising his dagger – if so, why isn’t the phrase “leaving with high daggers”? – but there’s not one shred of evidence for this. All we do know is that the Bard used it in Macbeth, which was originally going to be a comedy, as you can tell from the absurdly risible pantomime witches gathered around their cauldron – yeah, yeah, Will – going on about hubble bubble and all that rot. And then there’s all those unconvincing trees that suddenly develop the ability to walk about, though without ever being spotted by the main actor, leaving the audience to help him out with shouts of “They’re behind you!” Macbeth would’ve been a real side-splitter, had Shakey not come across the word dudgeon and realised that here was the chance to slip in more gratuitous violence and bloodshed than your average Michael Winner film. What we can’t understand, though, is why he didn’t cut all that slapstick nonsense out later on, in that case?

Another word then never turns up alone is knoll. As in grassy knoll. Of which there’s only ever been one in All Recorded History …

[All opinions expressed herein remain solely those of the author]


John Donne as a Young Man: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Crucifixion: Antonello da Messina [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Flagellation of Christ (1880) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905): [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Great Fire of London: Lieve Verschuier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alphorn Festival: By Cristo Vlahos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Hippocrates, engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremy Hunt: By Culture, Media and Sport Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremy Corbyn: By YouTube/exadverso [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sombreros: By No machine-readable author provided. Patrick.denizet~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Macbeth and the Witches: Théodore Chassériau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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