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I’m sure you know that a hypochondriac is someone who imagines they have a multitude of medical problems when in fact they are perfectly healthy. They suffer from hypochondria.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary this meaning developed in English from a word that we got from Latin and that Latin in turn borrowed from Greek.
Hypochondria sounds like a fancy medical word and so it is fitting that it didn’t come to English from French 1000 years ago, but instead directly from Latin more like 400 years ago when renaissance scholars were dragging ancient wisdom back into the light of day, at least to European knowledge.
When English academics first adopted the word hypochondria the meaning was not of imagined medical conditions. The Greek roots of the word can be broken in two hypo and chondria. Hypo is the opposite of hyper so that while something that is hyper is above, something that is hypo is underneath.
That’s why you get a shot with a hypodermic needle, it goes under your skin.
The chondira part of hypochondria means “cartilage.”
So hypochondria really meant the soft tissues and organs that lay beneath your ribs and sternum.
Back hundreds of years ago and sometimes even now, when people went to their doctors with unspecified stomach ailments, pains and complaints, the doctor often couldn’t pin down the problem. So it was that these soft tissues and organs were blamed for unspecified health problems and the problems took on the name of the region of the body.
You can be sure that in many cases the pain and threat to health was real and that it was the primitive physician’s ignorance that made the problems unknown and generalized under the hypochondria heading.
But with time the meaning of the word shifted so that it came to mean not an illness the physician had no other name for, but an illness that the physician didn’t actually believe was there.
In the late 1700s there was a doctor named John Moore who was a keen observer of human nature. We know he was a keen observer because he was also an author.
He was convinced that two thirds of a physician’s fee were generated out of imaginary complaints. He tells the story of a businessman who had gone to the town of Bath for the health-giving properties of its hot-springs and then was off to Bristol to see if theirs could make him any more healthy.
He asked his doctor in Bath to write a note to whatever doctor the businessman managed to scare up in Bristol to bring that new doctor up to speed on the case. Off he went toward Bristol. After a while he got curious as to what his physician might have said to the prospective doctor.
I’d guess the businessman was enough of a hypochondriac that he wanted to have a more exact understanding of all his ailments.
Anyway, he opens the envelope addressed to the new doctor and reads
“Dear Sir. The bearer is a fat Wiltshire clothier. Make the most of him.”
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English Released this week.