Comedian/rugby referee (some would say they are one in the same) John Goodwyn sends this wry observation on how we mangle language. Enjoy.
By John Goodwyn
I was going to rant about the Cuban embargo this week but then another idea hit me today as I was reading The Week magazine. This is not so much of a rant as just a peculiar observation. But first, I want to start you with the etymology of the word “hysteria”.
1 : a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions
2 : behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess <political hysteria>
(Definition provided by Merriam-Webster)
And this, from Wikipedia:
<<In the Western world, until the seventeenth century, hysteria referred to a medical condition thought to be particular to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus (from the Greek ὑστέρα “hystera” = uterus), such as when a neonate emerges from the female birth canal.>>
So you see, “hysteria”, as it is understood now, is just a psychological condition. However, it has its roots in specifically female histrionics. Much in the same way that, etymologically speaking, women are not capable of making testimony because it requires, well, testicles.
With the understanding of the modern definition, as well as knowledge of the etymology of the word, then, it was with some interest that I read a story about an episode of “conversion disorder” at a high school in New York. For the purposes of this column, the details of the episode aren’t terribly important; just suffice it to say that a group of cheerleaders, one by one, began suffering similar psychological ‘twitches’, causing an uproar in the town with people trying to find the cause. Even Erin Brockovich was in on it. And I’m sure Nancy Grace had an opinion but, this being New York, no one wanted to listen to that obnoxious southern drawl of hers.
Anyway, what I found funny was that it has been determined to be “mass hysteria”. However, this article was very quick to point out that the term “mass hysteria” has fallen out of favor for its sexist connotations and has been replaced with “mass psychogenic illness”. Now, if I hadn’t provided the Wikipedia article about the term “hysteria”, how many of you would have actually known that it refers to lady parts? And here’s the kicker; the article went on to say that girls are more likely to succumb to this than boys. So it turns out, after all, that females are more prone to hysteria than males. Who knew?
Once again, in the never-ending quest to soften our language and make sure no one is offended, here’s just another phrase that was simple, everyone understood immediately what it meant, and its modern interpretation had nothing sexist implied nor interpreted – yet it’s been replaced by a phrase that’s one word and two syllables longer, has no meaning for most who read or hear it and conveys no emotion, whatsoever.
George Carlin is turning over in his grave – or should that be “alternating corporeal lateral arrangement within the confines of his terrestrial interment”?