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Lexical Investigations: Hypochondriac

Hypochondriac

Hypochondriac comes ultimately from the Greek word hypokhondria, which literally means “under the cartilage (of the breastbone).” In the late 16th century, when hypochondriac first entered the English language, it referred to the upper abdomen.

The upper abdomen, it turns out, was thought to be the seat of melancholy at a time when the now-outdated medical theory of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile [choler], and black bile [melancholy]) was accepted as a basis for legitimate health practice. In the 17th century, hypochondriac referred to people who suffered from “depression and melancholy without cause,” though we might suppose from the name of this malady that many depressed patients complained of abdominal pains, which otherwise went undiagnosed. “Vapors,” another archaic disorder connected to the upper abdomen, was used as a euphemism for PMS in a time when such things were not discussed in polite conversation. Because doctors were male at this time, “women’s problems” were largely written off as fits of hysteria (another obsolete medical term of Greek origin from the word for womb).

It wasn’t until the 19th century that hypochondriac described someone who suffered “illness without a specific cause.” This sense is still widely used, though today we diagnose modern hypochondriacs by their overuse of the website WebMD.

Popular References
The Hypochondriac: Molière’s last play, first performed in 1673. During the play’s fourth performance, Molière passed out onstage and died a few days later.

Related Quotations

“[T]here was a pleasurable illumination in your eye occasionally, a soft excitement in your aspect, which told of no bitter, bilious, hypochondriac brooding.”
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)

“The uncomfortable feelings of the hypochondriac are excessively magnified by his fears and the concentration of his thoughts and attention to his disease.”

—Dr. Prichard, “Hypochondriasis,” The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine: Comprising Treatises On the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Medical Jurisprudence, Etc., Etc., Volume 2, edited by Sir John Forbes, Alexander Tweedie, John Conolly (1833)

“Aziz’s mother, a notorious hypochondriac, complained at length about her latest bout of indigestion.”
—Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005)

Read our previous post in this series about the word etymology.

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

16 Comments

  1. HiloGuy -  May 16, 2013 - 7:31 pm

    Oh My God, How did I get two degrees. LOL! Then again my generation didn’t have these great tools to learn with. It was fun.

    Reply
  2. John Dice -  April 29, 2013 - 2:16 pm

    I’m sick to death of hypochondriacs ~:0)

    Reply
  3. SkythekidRS -  April 29, 2013 - 6:31 am

    Well, that makes me feel startled.

    Reply
  4. IanMac -  April 29, 2013 - 4:52 am

    @ ERIC: Re “Founder”, this word is also commonly used to describe the sinking of a ship, often due to stormy seas, presumably used because the vessel ends up at the bottom.

    Reply
  5. Joe -  April 29, 2013 - 4:13 am

    Yawn…

    Reply
  6. Sharon Tyus -  April 28, 2013 - 6:04 am

    this is a reason term used by many when saying something is wrong with them but they themselfs are not qualifed to diagnosis it

    Reply
  7. toyswillmickeal -  April 27, 2013 - 11:48 pm

    god

    Reply
  8. Edam -  April 26, 2013 - 8:50 pm

    You know, I keep trying to tell my family I’m a hypochondriac, but they don’t believe me.

    Reply
  9. PeeJ -  April 26, 2013 - 9:22 am

    This installment makes me feel sick. Maybe I should see a doctor.

    Reply
  10. Ole TBoy -  April 25, 2013 - 9:36 am

    Consider the bravery, as well as the sense of theatricality, shown by Molière to write and star in a play about a hypochondriac while he himself was dying. Almost as if he were sending up himself. Or, ironically laughing himself into his grave. Now that’s show business.

    Reply
  11. S R SAIFI -  April 25, 2013 - 7:57 am

    beautiful derivative of English language.

    Reply
  12. a.gopalakrishnan -  April 25, 2013 - 5:07 am

    no comments

    Reply
  13. Eric -  April 25, 2013 - 4:48 am

    The word of the day today was flounder, which means to thrash around. The writeup did not mention that the verbs founder and flounder are often confused. Founder comes from a Latin word meaning “bottom” (as in foundation) and originally referred to knocking enemies down; it is now also used to mean “to fail utterly, collapse.” Flounder means “to move clumsily, thrash about,” and hence “to proceed in confusion.” If John is foundering in Chemistry 1, he had better drop the course; if he is floundering, he may yet pull through.

    Reply
  14. Hunter -  April 23, 2013 - 6:43 pm

    I know way too many hypochondriacs.

    Reply
  15. ananymous -  April 23, 2013 - 3:14 pm

    It’s nice to see the author has a sense of humor:

    … hypochondriac … today we diagnose modern hypochondriacs by their overuse of the website WebMD.

    Reply
  16. HYPOCHONDRIAC | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  April 23, 2013 - 7:17 am

    [...] someone’s Baby Back — The Feeding of the Vulture — The Life and Times of a  ‘Hypochondriac’ –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, [...]

    Reply

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