The Etymology of “Hysteria”

Derived from the Greek and Latin words for uterus, hysteria was an extremely common, catch-all medical diagnosis that more or less meant that the patient had a case of the Lady Crazies. But as the news has taught us, mass hysteria isn’t limited to people with uteruses (or uteri, depending on your school of Latin and Greek grammar thought) anymore.

Feeling a bit too sane today? Me too! I didn’t feel much like reading the news for my daily dose of what-the-fuckery, so instead I elected to delve into the frenzied world of human neuroses with the compelling history of the term “hysteria.” (Excuse the length here; this word has a boatload of history to unpack.)

These days, as we all know, hysteria usually refers to “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people.” In an antiquated sense, it can also refer to a general category of psychological disorders. Although hysteria was once a very common diagnosis, medical professionals no longer use the term “hysteria” in this sense, instead using more specific and recently-coined names for disorders. And for good reason.

“Hysteric” and “hysterical” equally common uses when the word surfaced in English in the very early 1600s in medical contexts from the Latin hystericus, or “of the womb,” which in turn came from the Greek hysterikos, meaning either “of the womb” or “suffering in the womb,” and the base noun hystera, or “womb” (i.e., uterus).

As you might expect from the origin, the medical Latin term “hysteria” was used to diagnose neuroses that were almost entirely specific to women—and that were believed to be caused by the uterus. Over the centuries, its perplexingly vast array of symptoms included heartburn, vertigo, headaches, choking, depression, poor attention span, jealousy, “problems with the veins in the nose,” anxiety, and death, among many others. (All of these are from the mid-19th century, when the American physician George Miller Beard cataloged 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria, a list he claimed was still incomplete.)

The notion of hysteria as the cause of pretty much anything that could ever be wrong with a woman is attributed to Hippocratic-era Greek medical teachings about the oddly disturbing theory of the “Wandering Womb,” which suggested that many diseases women suffered from were caused by the uterus moving of its own accord — and I’m not talking about a little bit of shifting here. Just to illustrate how far-fetched this concept seems today, here’s a description of the Wandering Womb theory by the 2nd-century physician Aretaeus:

In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscus, closely resembling an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen, and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.

Despite the fact that more widely-renowned Greek physicians including Galen understood that this was Dr. Spaceman-level balderdash, the concept of the Wandering Womb and its ties to hysteria remained a plague on the medical field for centuries, lingering like a bad case of chlamydia almost until the Enlightenment.

Another humorous theory about hysteria was that it was caused by the retention of “female semen,” which was thought to be stored in the uterus and to mingle with male semen during sex. If “female semen” wasn’t exposed to male semen often enough—said the primarily male physicians of the time—stored female semen could become venomous. Yes, really. And as a result hysteria was believed to be particularly common among widows, to the extent that it was sometimes known as “the widow’s disease”.

By the mid- to late 19th century, “hysteria” referred almost exclusively to what we consider a type of sexual dysfunction (but only among women), and treatment often involved doctors inducing orgasms in their patients. For science, of course.

While more orgasms probably did go a long way toward helping many sexually-repressed women of the day, attributing so many ailments — psychological and otherwise — to the mysteries of the uterus was (obviously) problematic because it necessarily reduced hundreds of diseases to what was ostensibly “the lady crazies.”

Not until our old pal Sigmund Freud (influenced by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot) published several articles on hysteria in the 1890s were stress-related symptoms of that nature widely attributed to psychological causes. Further developments in this area, as well as the nuances of psychology as a whole, were prompted not only by advances in gynecology and an increasing number of women in the medical field, but also by the study of shell shock and (what we now know as) PTSD following World War I, which helped doctors better understand psychological trauma in general.

Although today we consider the concept of “mass hysteria” to be non gender-specific, and have since the term surfaced around 1839, that phrase was also once attributed exclusively to women—or collective nuttiness caused by women. One of the earliest documented cases or “hysteria” in a group of people occurred during the Middle Ages, when a convent of French nuns all began meowing like cats and would do so together for hours at a time, until soldiers from the surrounding town threatened to intervene if they did not stop. (Being nuns, they probably had too much venomous female semen stored up in their Wandering Wombs, eh?)

Also, as you probably know, in a more informal sense, the adjective “hysterical” can mean “extremely funny,” a sense that arose in 1939, appearing shortly thereafter in novels such as The Walsh Girls (1943) and a 1959 autobiography by Vincent Price. Does that mean uteruses are especially funny? Aside from the Wandering Womb theory, probably not. Instead, it earned that sense because fits of uncontrollable laughter were among the extensive list of hysteria symptoms.

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