What It Really Means To Call A Woman Hysterical

by Kory Stamper

published September 25th, 2018

Is hysterical a gendered insult?

It began, unsurprisingly, on cable TV.

In 2017, the Senate intelligence committee called Attorney General Jeff Sessions to testify about his Russian contacts as well as conversations about those contacts with Donald Trump prior to the 2016 general election. The hearings were widely discussed, as were all things having to do with Russia, but they led to an odd exchange on cable TV about how Senator Kamala Harris was questioning Sessions.

The CNN analysis of the hearings included a back-and-forth between Jason Miller, former Trump advisor, and Kirsten Powers, a CNN political analyst, wherein Miller claimed that Sessions had done a good job batting away Harris’s “hysteria.” Powers jumped in:

Powers: How was Senator Kamala Harris hysterical? I don’t understand that. She was asking some tough questions—

Miller: [cross-talk] … completely partisan screed—

Powers: But how was that “hysterical”?

Miller: From my, I would say, objective perspective, it didn’t seem like there was any effort to try to get to a real question or to the bottom of things.

Powers: I think she asked a lot of questions. She was very dogged. I wouldn’t say she was any more dogged than Senator Ron Wyden was, would you say that?

Miller: My opinion on that, I think she was hysterical. I don’t think Senator Wyden was trying to get to the bottom of answers either.

Powers: But he wasn’t hysterical, she was. Okay, I just wanted to clear that up. Got it.

Miller: She was trying to shout down Attorney Sessions, which is way out of bounds—

Powers: She didn’t shout, actually, but even if she did, I’m just saying that they both were asking a lot of tough questions and I think calling her “hysterical” is probably a little gendered thing to say.

The exchange continued, and analysis of the analysis resulted in a number of claims supporting Powers’s charge that calling Harris hysterical amounted to a gendered insult. But, of course, some pooh-poohed the claim, pointing to dictionary definitions of the word as evidence that such a notion is political correctness run amok. They claimed the word has been used of men! It can mean “funny”—how is that an insult?!

Lexicographers to the rescue

Most people assume that lexicography primarily involves being philosophical about language while lounging in a leather armchair. (Don’t you all get too jealous at once.) But, in fact, good lexicography is based on rigorous data analysis that uses all the tools at our disposal. And, a proper lexicographical analysis can actually tell you whether a word like hysterical has gendered use or not. So … let’s dive in.

Meet the raw materials

We start with a corpus, or a curated database of full-text sources. For this analysis, I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) at Brigham Young University. COCA is an excellent linguistic resource for analysis like this, because it’s large (it contains over 560 million words), balanced (it includes as wide a range of language as possible, from spoken English to academic English), and tagged (the words in the corpus have been analyzed and given a part of speech label). It also happens to only include sources from 1990 onward, which means that our analysis is only taking into account current linguistic usage.

We also need to start with some basic parameters about what we mean by gendered. In this particular case, we want to sort the uses of hysterical by the gender of the person being called hysterical or the gender of the person who is doing the thing labeled as hysterical (like crying or laughing).

Get collocative

A search for hysterical in COCA returns over 6,000 hits, which is quite a bit … even for a lexicographer to sort through. Rather than read through each hit, we can analyze common patterns of use by searching for collocates of hysterical, or for words that are commonly paired with the word hysterical. I narrowed the search for collocates down to the top 100 nouns that appear within four words of hysterical, and then sorted them by frequency.

This gives us a more manageable sample size: a little over 1,000 hits. The ten most common nouns that follow hysterical are, in order of frequency, laughter, woman, people, crying, laugh, tears, mother, women, girl, and time. The ten most common nouns that precede hysterical are, in order of frequency, people, mother, voice, kind, woman, man, word, women, room, and girl.

The first thing that jumps out is that female-tagged nouns like women, girl, and mother show up on that list much more frequently than male-tagged nouns like man. That proves, right off the bat, that the word hysterical gets applied to female subjects more than male subjects.

But those numbers, you could argue, don’t prove anything. What if the use is actually “Don’t call women ‘hysterical’,” or “men can be hysterical”? And, what about the weird words that show up in those lists, like room and time? You’re right, that is weird. Which is why I sorted the words as either male-tagged, female-tagged, mixed-gender (or gender not specified), and abstracted (for non-human words or for all uses of hysterical to mean “funny”). You’re welcome. Here are the results:

MALE FEMALE MIXED ABSTRACTED
hysterical + noun (up to four positions out) 96 314 152 87
noun + hysterical (up to four positions out) 44 183 78 63
TOTALS 140 497 230 150

Numbers don’t lie: hysterical is used with female words 49% of the time. Now, compare that to how often it’s used with male words (14% of the time) or mixed groups (23% of the time).

Digging deeper into hysterical data

But, how can we know that’s a good measure? After all, the dictionary says that hysterical can mean “funny”! And, men do get called hysterical, too!

We can crunch the data even more to show other ways that hysterical is biased. I assigned each noun a type: person for nouns that were clearly people; action for nouns that described an action like laughter or crying; and thing for nouns that didn’t really describe either of those. Then, each noun was analyzed to see if women are described as hysterical criers more than men, for instance.

Looking at the person-typed nouns yields a few surprises. The most common nouns that follow hysterical are mostly female: woman, mother, women, girl, man, men, wife, girls, person, and mom. But, you cry: man, men, and person! Be careful: just because a word appears near hysterical doesn’t mean it’s the word being modified by hysterical.

If you read through those uses, you’ll see plenty of sentences like “She was hysterical and the men calmed her down”—uses of men near hysterical that nonetheless have a female referent hidden in the context. In fact, of the 21 sentences that use man, men, or person near hysterical, 13 are female-tagged, six are male-tagged, and two are mixed or gender not known. Sneaky, sneaky.

Looking at the action words, here are the top words listed alphabetically and with their male-female tally:

WORD NEAR HYSTERICAL MALE-TAGGED FEMALE-TAGGED
cackle 2
crying/cries 8 17
fear 1 4
fits 2
giggle/giggles 9
glee 5
joy 3
laughter/laugh 18 36
outburst/outbursts 6
panic 3
rage 5
relief 2 2
screams/screaming 7
sobs 1 5
tears 3 14
violence 1

While both men and women laugh hysterically (good thing, too), women cry, sob, scream, rage, panic, giggle, and burst in to tears hysterically far more than men do. When men are hysterical, it’s with glee or joy; when women are hysterical, it’s with outbursts, violence, and fits.

Hysterical beginnings

How did we come to this point? The origins of hysterical have something to do with it. Hysterical’s earliest meaning was “of, relating to, or characterized by hysteria,” and while we now think of hysteria as irrational panic, it was, for centuries, a medical diagnosis. Hysteria comes from the Greek hysterikós, which means “suffering in the womb.”

So, yeah, the ancient Greeks believed that when a woman was behaving irrationally—or in a way that they considered to be irrational—it was because her uterus was literally wandering around her body causing trouble. (The belief that the uterus was a free-floating organ persisted into the late Middle Ages.) A number of ailments and attitudes were blamed on hysteria, including nervousness, fainting, irritability, anxiety, boldness or outspokenness, sexual desire, and—no joke—the suffragist movement.

Charges of hysteria didn’t end with women getting the vote, either: the American Psychological Association still allowed the diagnosis of “hysterical neurosis” as late as 1980.

And this should, perhaps, give us some pause before we call someone “hysterical.” The word’s origin ties it to the idea that any show of emotion or force from a woman is evidence of her fragility and inherent instability, and echoes of that are still present in its uses today. When I ask you to picture someone hysterically crying, or screaming hysterically, you will most likely picture a woman who is out of control. That’s not a personal failing; that’s evidence that we’ve been conditioned to associate hysterical with women.

In the rare cases when hysterical is used of men, it’s usually used to describe either a mental or emotional point of no reasonable, safe return: a vet with PTSD who has a hysterical psychotic break, for instance, or a hysterical grieving father who needs to be sedated lest he hurt himself. Hysterical then becomes a brush that can be used to tar men as unstable, weak, or dangerous—even in instances where they are being completely reasonable:

But, what about the “funny” sense? Surely that’s a positive use we don’t have to shy away from?

Nope. Even the “funny” sense of hysterical usually connotes a loss of control, as in the original hysteria: a hysterical joke or comedian makes you laugh uncontrollably, sometimes sob, just absolutely lose it. It’s the sunny inverse of an emotional breakdown, but the breakdown is still implied. (It’s worth noting that when hysterical is used to refer to funny people—the word’s only “positive” use—it’s most often used of men.)

So, is hysterical gendered?

The evidence is overwhelming that hysterical is used most often in reference to women, and that most of the female-tilted uses of hysterical refer to actions that are negative in connotation or meaning. You’d be hard-pressed to look at the data and come to any other conclusion.

What can we do to get people to stop calling women hysterical? Change begins at home: when hysterical slips out of your mouth, think about how you’ve used it and whether you can substitute another less-loaded word for it. Try “she’s ridiculously funny,” or “a frenzied outburst,” or “uncontrollable glee.” Say that someone is overwrought or frantic or agitated.

And, when people tell you that you’re being hysterical about hysterical, throw some cold, hard data their way.


Read other articles by Kory Stamper:

Kory Stamper was a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster for almost twenty years, and she is the author of the best-selling Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles the twists and turns of dictionary making and the English language. She is also the co-host of Fiat Lex, a podcast about dictionaries, and she is working on a book about defining color. She lives in New Jersey with her dog and far too many dictionaries.

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