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The upper abdomen, it turns out, was thought to be the seat of melancholy at a time when the now-outdated medical theory of the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile [choler], and black bile [melancholy]) was accepted as a basis for legitimate health practice.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.
—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.
“[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)
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.