Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments are closed.

Unfortunately, new comments on posts on this site have been suspended because of my illness.

Previously approved comments will remain visible.

I deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your contributions to this site have been invaluable. But I can no longer devote the time necessary to separate good comments from the hundreds of spam comments submitted.

Because Wordpress weirdly doesn't allow me to simply turn off comments en masse, comment boxes will still appear at the foot of posts.

 

 

shameless pleading

Sanguine

Think of it as your inner mood ring.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife came across “sanguine” in a quote and, having studied French in high school, she wondered why the person was saying that they were bloody. After I explained the English meaning, I went looking for how the words might be related. The only mention in your column of “sanguine” is in an article on “adumbrate.” But you didn’t explain the origin of “sanguine.” Can you help out? — Richard Stone.

I’ll sure try. It’s an interesting question, but a weirdly complicated one, involving, among other things, a short excursion into the deeply odd theories of Medieval medicine.

It probably makes the most sense to start with the common modern meaning of the word and work backwards to the weird stuff. “Sanguine” (usually pronounced “san-gwin,” with stress on the first syllable) means “confident, optimistic” as well as, more generally “confident in the future, energetic, enthusiastic, etc.” (“Although sales of widgets had recently dipped, the CEO was sanguine about his company’s future.”).

“Sanguine” first appeared in English in the 14th century, adapted from the Old French “sanguin,” which was based on the Latin “sanguineus,” meaning “pertaining to blood” as well as “bloody, bloodthirsty.” These gory meanings were also carried into English, but today are considered archaic or obsolete (and are now expressed by the related adjective “sanguinary,” meaning “bloody, bloodthirsty, brutal”). “Sanguine” today is almost always used in the “hopeful, optimistic” sense.

Now we need to rewind a bit to examine the theory of “humors” which was central to the medical practices of Ancient Greece and Rome as well as those of Medieval Europe. The theory was that the human body contains four essential substances, called “humors,” the balance of which governed the health, well-being and temperament of every person. The four humors were “yellow bile” (which made people restless and angry), “black bile” (quiet, serious, depressed), “phlegm” (calm, patient) and “blood” (hopeful and happy).

Several of our modern English words are derived from these categories. A “phlegmatic” personality is calm bordering on apathetic, an excess of yellow bile was thought to make one “bilious” (cranky), and the Greek “melankholia” (literally “black bile”) gave us “melancholia,” meaning “sadness.” All four humors were thought to be present in every person; it was when an excess or insufficiency of one or more caused an imbalance that illness or personality problems resulted.

A mood-meter that tended a bit toward the “sanguine” zone produced a sunnier disposition than black bile “melancholia,” and while a “sanguine” friend probably made a dubious choice for one’s investment advisor, they were probably much more fun as dinner guests.

Although the theory of humors may sound a bit loopy to us today, it dominated the practice of medicine for more than 2,000 years until advances in science put it to rest in the 19th century. But the basic idea behind the theory, that the key to a sound mind and body lies in maintaining a balance, still underlies the practice of medicine today.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

(and see each issue
much sooner)

unclesamsmaller
by Subscribing.

 

Follow us on Twitter!

 

 

 

New! You have questions? How Come? has the answers!

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!