ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Hypochondria and that “Gut Feeling”

Screwhead
Don’t try this at home.

Hypochondria, or the belief that you’re ill, sick, or harboring some awful disease despite any evidence to support it, is an interesting word. On first consideration, my gut feeling was that it was in some way related to Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician and, according to the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, and Literature, and Art, “the founder of the school of a scientific art of healing.”

That, however, is not the case. As Webster’s informs us, hypochondria comes from the Late Latin word for “abdomen” (pl. of Greek hypochondrion), meaning “soft part of the body below the cartilage and above the navel [hypo-, under + chondros, cartilage: so called because the condition was supposed to have its seat in this region].”

The meaning of the word, which I hinted at above and Webster’s drives home, is “abnormal anxiety over one’s health, often with imaginary illness and severe melancholy.”

Blakiston’s Pocket Medical Dictionary gets a little more technical and requests that those looking for information about hypochondria begin by learning its proper name: hypochondriasis, which it (awesomely) defines as:

“A chronic condition in which a person is morbidly concerned with his or her physical or mental health, and believes himself [sic] to be suffering from a grave, usually bodily, disease often focused upon one organ, without demonstrable organic findings; this condition is traceable to some longstanding intrapsychic conflict.”

Based on the way hypochondriacs are portrayed on television, they always seemed manic, and a little crazy, so I find this association between hypochondria and depression somewhat of a surprise. Apparently, it shouldn’t be, for as my etymological dictionaries reveal, the relationship has been right there from the beginning. As the Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories notes in its entry for hypochondria:

“Many ancient theories of pathogenesis, attractive though they are, have been discarded. That dire humor, black bile (or melancholy), was said to be a secretion of the spleen or kidneys and to produce a morbid state of bleak depression and with it an excessive concern with one’s health. This ‘disease’ was named for the region below the breastbone in which it had its origin, the hypochondria.” [Emphasis added.]

And from the Dictionary of Word Origins:

“Originally, hypochondria was an anatomical term, denoting the ‘area of the abdomen beneath the ribs.’ […] This particular part of the body was formerly supposed to be the seat of melancholy, and so in the 17th century the word came to be used for ‘low spirits, depression.’ The modern sense ‘belief of being ill’ originally belonged to the derived hypochondriasis, but was transformed in the 19th century to hypochondria.”

So, it seems that Blakiston, who no doubt benefited from the wisdom of the ages, was right–the hypochondriac is suffering from some “psychic conflict.”

But what happens if you dream about being sick? Does that count as hypochondria? Not exactly, says the Dream Dictionary from A to Z.

“In dreams, indigestion suggests an idea or attitude that does not agree with you or that you are finding hard to stomach in waking life … The dream may also point to actual indigestion. Alternatively, could your stomach have been protesting in your dream because it is literally crying out for nourishment, either literally or because you are feeling starved of love?”

The book goes on to say that if your intestines are the source of discomfort in your dreams, you could be dreaming about something you don’t think you have the “guts” to do. Nausea in dreams may refer to a negative feeling in real life you need to address. Further, if you’re physically sick in a dream, it could mean that you need to “expel” or “get rid” of something in your life, like a job, a relationship, etc.

Now I know why I always  feel sick at work.

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ARL Archive · The Art of the Dictionary

Going Round and Round with Saturn

[Note: My original intent for this post was simply to show some of the cool art that adorns the various dictionaries and other books in the ARL’s collection under the heading of “The Art of the Dictionary.” Unfortunately, I got carried away and ended up writing a full-blown post on a hopelessly intriguing figure who’s shrouded in mystery: Saturn.]

saturn-1
Credit: Dictionary of Symbols

Not long ago, when I was suffering through what I can only call a dark time, I turned to more than a few of the books in my library to find some answers as to what might be happening and why. (I tried a shrink too, but the books were more useful.) One of them that left a “mark” was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, which has a chapter with the rather curious title, “Gifts of Depression.” Within that chapter is a section bearing the sub-heading, “Saturn’s Child,” which contains sentiments like this:

… There was a time, five or six hundred years ago, when melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn. To be depressed was to be “in Saturn,” and a person chronically disposed to melancholy was known as a “child of Saturn.” […] These melancholic thoughts are are deeply rooted in Saturn’s preference for days gone by, for memory and the sense that time is passing. These thoughts and feelings, sad as they are, favor the soul’s desire to be both in time and in eternity, and so in a strange way, can be pleasing.

In traditional texts, Saturn is characterized as cold and distant … Saturn was also traditionally identified with the metal lead, giving the soul weight and density, allowing the light, airy elements to coalesce…. As we age, our ideas, formerly light and rambling, and unrelated to each other, become more densely gathered into values and philosophy, giving our lives substance and firmness.

For whatever reason, these words of Moore’s have stuck with me and I’ve become a little obsessed with this notion of a sort of “god of melancholy.” So, naturally, I dug into the reference section of my library to learn more about this god of yore and to see if what Moore had to say about him was accurate.

What I found, not surprisingly perhaps, were differing myths surrounding Saturn and a rich symbolic history that seems to contradict the myths without completely destroying the somewhat tenuous, yet highly visible thread that weaves its way through and unites them all.

saturn-2
Credit: Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature

Here are a few excerpts demonstrating both those contradictions and unifying themes.

________________

Saturn symbolizes time, with its ravenous appetite for life, devours all its creations, whether they are beings, things, ideas or sentiments. He is also symbolic of the insufficiency, in the mystic sense, of any order of existence within the plane of the temporal, or the necessity for the “reign of Cronos” to be succeeded by another cosmic mode of existence in which time has no place. Time brings restlessness–the sense of duration lasting from the moment of stimulus up to the instant of satisfaction. Hence Saturn is symbolic of activity, of slow, implacable dynamism, of realization and communication; and this is why he is said to have devoured his children and why he is related to the Ouroboros (or the serpent which bites its own tail). Other attributes are the oar (standing for navigation nad progress in things temporal), the hourglass and the scythe. In the scythe we can detect a double meaning: first, its function of cutting parallel to and corroborating the symbolism of devouring; and, secondly, its curved shape, which invariably corresponds to the feminine principle. This is why … Saturn takes on the same characteristic ambiguity of gender and sex, and is related to the earth, the sarcophagus and putrefaction, as well as the color black…. Saturn is in every case, a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localized expression in time and space of the universal life.

A Dictionary of Symbols

A very old Italian god identified with Cronus. He was said to have come from Greece to Italy in very early times, when Jupiter dethroned him and hurled him from Olympus. He established himself on the Capitol, on the site of Rome, and founded a village there, which bore the name of Saturnia. The reign of Saturn was extremely prosperous. This was the Golden Age. Saturn taught people how to cultivate the ground…. He was depicted armed with a scythe and his name was was associated with the invention of viticulture. He was, however, sometimes considered as a god of the underworld.

Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology

[Speaking of his reign in Italy …] Men lived like the gods, without care, in uninterrupted happiness, health, and strength; they did not grow old; and to them death was a slumber which relieved them of their present nature and transformed them into daemons. The earth yielded every kind of fruit and gave up all its treasures without cultivation or labor. Under the reign of Saturn, men lived a life of paradise.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature