Monday, April 11, 2016

Why Women Are Hysterical - Etymology

"You're just being hysterical."

We've all heard it. Common in everyday English, "hysteria" refers to uncontrolled levels of emotion. It can have positive connotations, as when we refer to something being very funny (hysterical), but it can also have negative connotations, mainly towards women.

Even though now it feels insulting to be referred to as "hysterical," the term originally derives from medicine and was once used as a formal diagnosis.

"Hysterical" (and all its variations) has its origins in Ancient Greek. The Greek word hystera means "womb" or "uterus." In Classic Greece, it was believed that a "wandering womb" or displaced uterus caused emotional problems in women: hysteria.

Ancient Egyptian documents such as the Kahun Papyrus, dating from 1900 BC, already mention psychological disorders derived from movements of the uterus. The very father of medicine Hippocrates was the first to coin "hysteria." For centuries (well into the Renaissance), "hysteria" was applied as a medical term to refer to practically any disorder in women. Even though medicine was theoretically based on empirical knowledge and observation, social roles and stigmas were crucial in shaping the diagnosis of women's diseases.

In the time of Hippocrates, women virtually had no rights and went from being controlled by their fathers to being controlled by their husbands. In the very cradle of democracy, women couldn't vote or even attend assemblies. Natural aspects of women's biology such as menstruation and hormonal changes were ignored or completely misunderstood. Famous philosophers such as Aristotle claimed women were unfit for education or politics because of their "bad biology."

So, due to all these social factors--and contradicting the inherent empirical nature of medicine--practically any ailment that befell a woman was considered hysteria--a result of a wandering womb. The term "wandering womb" is literal. The Greeks literally believed the uterus could move around inside a woman's body. For example, if the uterus wandered to the lungs, it could cause death through "hysterical suffocation."

Treatment for the wandering womb could be tortuous. Some physicians applied honey or other sweet-smelling substances to the vulva in an attempt to lure the uterus back to its original place. Others made the women chew strong or disgusting substances, from cloves of garlic to excrements in an attempt to frighten the uterus away from the upper torso. In some cases, physicians performed a hysterectomy, a total removal of the uterus. Other times, the "disorder" was attributed to a dry or bored uterus, and the woman was given a prescription of marriage, sex, and childbearing to keep it occupied.

In more recent years, the term "hysteria" has been dropped from the medical field in favor of other, more concrete terms. Medicine has become more specific and (finally!) more empirical regarding women's diseases. Even so, gender, sexism and society still play a very important role in understanding women. Just think about all the jokes you've heard about PMS.

In 1931, the gynecologist Robert Frank coined the term "premenstrual tension" and in 1953 the physician Katharina Dalton expanded on his theory and coined "premenstrual syndrome," colloquially known as "PMS." In medicine, this term refers to the physical and mental changes a woman might undergo before menstruating. In everyday life, however, PMS has been used many times to have a laugh. From sitcoms to web comics, the natural biology of women's bodies is still treated as a beast, as something grazing the mystical and unknown.

And it's not just the nature of the beast, but also the treatment. I'm sure we've all heard some sort of "She's bitchy because she hasn't been laid" comment sometime in our life. Although it's a joke, all jokes hide some underlying truth or belief, and it seems sex is still the prescription for a troublesome womb. It makes me wonder just how far we've come in these four thousand years.


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