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shameless pleading






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.

2 comments to Sanguine

  • Anna

    great knowledge of Medieval time.

  • Neil

    Reference your San-Gwin re. pronunciation of sanguine: Gwin in Welsh might mean white. Wen in Cymraeg-Welsh is certainly white!
    Wan in English is sort of white or pale.
    San in French means without.
    So sanguine broken down could be without white!
    Perhaps that corresponds to red !?!
    I think I might be a trifle dyslexic.
    I remember not recognising six as a word in a game of ‘whatever it’s called’….ah, scrabble !
    I suppose six to my brain is or was a number!

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