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shameless pleading





The vapors

Breathe deep the gathering gloom.

Dear Word Detective: I heard on the radio the other day that cannabis is increasingly partaken in the form of vapor. The report said that vapor pens can deliver far more THC than one usually ingests, leading to very powerful highs, which might well be mistaken for having “the vapors,” to which 19th century women seemed to have a habit of succumbing. How did “vapor” come to be associated with feeling faint? — Steve Ford.

Vapor pens? Wow. I’m really out of touch. I’m presuming that we’re talking about something similar to the e-cigarettes everyone is in an uproar over at the moment. Kinda an electric joint, right? I saw a news report the other day about people inhaling vaporized vodka, or something. This bigger-faster-stronger trend seems like a bad idea to me. The saving grace and safety net of most popular forms of intoxication has been their natural limiting factors. Drink too much, you fall down and can’t drink any more, at least for a while. Potheads also lose interest at some point and take to yammering about clouds, as I recall.

“The vapors” as “a thing” (as we now apparently call objects of popular interest) was really more common in the 18th century than the 19th, inspired by the somewhat primitive understanding of human anatomy of that time.

“Vapor” in the most general sense means a substance in gaseous form, or one vaporized or suspended in air (such as smoke, or water in the form of steam or fog). The word “vapor” itself comes to us, via Old French, from the Latin word “vapor,” meaning “steam or heat.” The source of the Latin “vapor” is, sadly, a mystery. “Vapor” in the literal sense of “steam, fog, mist” first appeared in English in the 14th century, and was also used figuratively to mean something insubstantial or worthless (“I am at this present very sick of my little vapour of fame.” Horace Walpole, 1781).

So far, so good. Vapor is mist, fog, yadda yadda, right? But now things get weird. In the 15th century a theory arose that internal organs of the human body were prone to emit certain “vapors” which were very injurious to the health of the person. Such “vapors” were thought to be located mainly in the stomach (probably because stomach and intestinal gas is common), but could arise in other organs and permeate one’s torso, wreaking all sorts of havoc with one’s temperament and well-being.

By the mid-17th century, people were speaking of “the vapors,” a condition resulting from such bilious fumes bubbling in one’s body, the symptoms of which were depression, nervous and delusional excitement, exhaustion, aches, pains and a general feeling of being run down and unwell (“These Things fill’d my Head with new Imaginations, and gave me the Vapours again, to the highest Degree.” Daniel Defoe, 1719).

Medical science, of course, eventually discredited the notion of poisonous vapors in one’s spleen, and by the 19th century came up with an entirely new disorder to explain all the same symptoms called “neurasthenia,” thought to be caused by overworked nerves. “Neurasthenia” (“neuro” plus “asthenia,” from the Greek for “without strength”) was a popular psychiatric diagnosis until the mid-20th century, but today most of those symptoms are ascribed to stress and depression.

1 comment to The vapors

  • Huh. I always assumed that “the vapors” was a callback to Pythia, the Greek oracle who sat above a volcanic vent and was “inspired” to babble prophecies and usually collapsed afterwards.

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