Humorous History: The Endnotes


Welcome to the Endnotes, where I put all the fun facts I can’t fit into the main videos! Today, an extra bit of information from my video about what is a Recipe — and if you haven’t seen that yet, click on the card. When I talked about ancient medicine in that video, I mentioned the basics of the theory of the humours—so here’s a little more about those four humours. Let’s start with blood. The Greeks called it haima, from which we get words such as hemorrhage the “bursting forth of blood” and hemoglobin a component of blood.

The Romans called it sanguis, one of two main words for blood, this one for blood inside the body, which gives us words such as sanguine, the temperament associated with this humour. By the way, the other word for blood cruor refers to blood from a wound, coming from a root that meant raw flesh, and is related to such words as crude, cruel, pancreas, and raw. In case you’re wondering, our English word blood comes from a root that means “swell, gush, spurt” (lovely), and in turn from a deeper root meaning “thrive, bloom”.

Blood was associated with the spring and the element air (of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water). It was associated as well with the liver (makes sense), and was considered to have the qualities warm and moist (again, makes sense). The next humour, yellow bile, was called by the Greeks kitrini khole, the word khole giving us choleric, the temperament associated with yellow bile, and also distantly related to the word yellow.

Bile we get from the Roman term bilis. According to the humorists, yellow bile was associated with summer, fire, and the gallbladder, and was considered to have the qualities warm and dry. Excess of yellow bile could produce aggression and anger Next, black bile in Greek is melaina khole, from which we get the word for the corresponding temperament melancholy. That first word melaina, by the way, comes from Greek melas meaning black, and also gives us the word melanin. Black bile is associated with autumn, earth, and the spleen, and was considered to have the qualities cold and dry. Black bile was thought to produce depression, or what was called melancholy. And finally we have the phlegm or phlegma in Greek, which was associated with winter, water, the brain and lungs, and was considered cold and moist. Unsurprisingly it produced the temperament phlegmatic, a word we still have with the sense of apathetic.

By the way, phlegm comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “burn, shining, white”, which perhaps oddly gives us the colour words black and blue, as well as the more obvious bleach and blond. This etymology may seem at odds with the associations of cold and moist, but probably has more to do with the colour. So the ancient or medieval physician / cook would have to keep in mind all these association when preparing food. So for instance a winter sauce would used hot and dry spices such as mustard, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, and cloves to keep one healthy in those cold months, but such hot, dry spices would be avoided in the summer.

As found on Youtube