By Barbara McAllister
Word of the Day: Hysteria
You probably know hysteria is overwrought, uncontrolled emotional behavior, but do you realize it’s considered an offensive sexist term? It comes from “hystera,” the Greek word for uterus. It’s where the word “hysterectomy” comes from. Hysterical behavior was originally thought to be caused by a defect in the womb.
Hippocrates, regarded as the father of medicine and the greatest physician of his time, was the first to use the term, around the 5th century BC. He wrote that hysteria was the result of a bad uterus which could “wander around the body and produce noxious fumes,” causing convulsions, anxiety and any number of various disorders. The “wandering womb” theory persisted and was assumed to be the cause of mass hysteria in the Middle Ages in such bizarre cases as the nuns in a French convent who meowed like cats for several hours a day, and the nuns in 15th century Germany who began biting each other. More likely those incidents arose from the stress suffered by young girls forced by their parents into a difficult life of poverty, celibacy and hard manual labor.
The idea that men could not be hysterical based on physical anatomy seems extremely outdated, but even Sigmund Freud wrote of women’s inferiority to men. The American Psychiatric Association didn’t officially eliminate “hysteria” as a clinical term until 1980. The term now used is “somatic symptom disorder.” Although the name has changed, the idea that females are typically less reasonable than males remains deeply rooted in our culture. Many women find this hilarious, though they’re reasonable enough not to become hysterical over it.
Editor’s note: “Hysterical” is almost universally now used to mean “really funny,” but that’s incorrect in more ways than one. If you were to say, “Sue thinks her new boyfriend is hysterical,” you’re saying she thinks he behaves with overwrought uncontrolled emotion, not that he’s funny. An inanimate object, thought or concept also can’t be “hysterical,” because those things don’t behave. If Sue thinks her new boyfriend’s joke was hysterical, she’s using the wrong word. The word she probably wants is “hilarious.”