Thursday, November 13, 2008

Today's Word: atrabilious

atrabilious: sad, melancholy, morose. (Also atrabiliar.) There are plenty of words, both great and impotent, for a negative emotional state. This one jumps out at me because a) I've never heard or seen it used, b) it derives from Latin and ultimately means "black bile," and c) I'm feeling particularly atrabilious today. Keen yet depressed word lovers will know that melancholy also means "black bile," but it stems from Greek, not Latin. According to my dictionary, atrabilious appeared after melancholy. I'm sure there's a great story there, but I don't have the time or inclination to hunt it down.

But what's all this about bile? In medieval times, people thought that the body was composed of four humors: black bile (melancholy), yellow bile (choler), phlegm, and blood. Diseases and disorders were caused when the four humors were not in balance.

  • Too much black bile made you melancholic — you had a thoughtful temperament, but you likely were preoccupied with tragedy and cruelty and were therefore depressed.
  • An abundance of yellow bile (choler) made you choleric — ambitious, energetic, but also easily angered.
  • A wealth of phlegm made you phlegmatic — unemotional, apathetic, or dull or calm, cool, and controlled.
  • Having a lot of blood made you sanguine — cheerful, confident, and healthy, good things to be.