Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I do apologize for the lack of posting. Sadly, I’ve been rather afflicted with illness for the last week or so, and am only now feeling human enough to return to posting. However, once you’re truly obsessed with language, not even a bout of pneumonia can stop you from noticing interesting language use.

The difference between having an issue in your chest and having a chest full of issues

During the course of this bout of illness, I (unfortunately) developed a mild case of Costochondritis. Costochrondritis is a sharp pain in the chest that happens after trauma, strain, or sometimes for less-than-clear reasons. In my case, an unusually rough bout of coughing in a very strange position did the damage. However, this is a language blog, not a medical blog, so let’s take a look at the word “costochondritis”.

Medically, costochondritis is an inflammation of the Costal cartilages, and actually, that’s well reflected in the Etymology (origin) of the word. “Costo-“ seems to pretty straightforwardly reference the Costal cartilages. “Khondros”, the Greek root for “Cartilage”, is the second element of the word. Finally, “-itis” indicates an inflammation. Thus, we end up with a word which, when you translate the roots, means, literally, “Costal Cartilage Inflammation”. Makes sense.

When I first heard the “-chondr-“ root in the middle, my mind jumped to the only other word I knew with that root, hypochondria. Hypochondria is a condition where somebody constantly believes that they’re ill or is always preoccupied with their health. It’s a legitimate (and serious) psychological illness, but it’s a very, very different sort of problem than costochondritis (and has nothing to do with cartilage), so I was having trouble figuring out how they could be related linguistically.

Snapshots in time

The origins of words capture not just the history of a language, but the history of the people who speak it as well.

Sometimes, this is fairly obvious. Spanish has a very large number of words derived from Arabic, so one could pretty safely infer that Spanish-speakers have had a great deal of contact with Arabic speakers throughout time.

Sometimes, words can be relics of past cultural movements that have since been supplanted. The term “Yule” (which now refers to Christmas) is actually the old term for the Pagan winter solstice celebration which is the foundation for the modern Christmas holiday. In a widely accepted term for a Christian holy day, its Pagan origins are kept just a scratch beneath the surface, held forever by etymology.

Finally, sometimes, words reflect a past understanding of the world which we might not still have today. If a disaster area is described as being “pandemonium”, we understand it to mean “it was chaotic”. Literally, the world comes from the Greek roots “pan-“ ‘all’ and “daimon” ‘demons’. Back in their day, such chaos might have been viewed in the metaphor of rampaging demons, whereas we might not see that.

A very humor-ous origin

So, what do Costochondritis and Hypochondria have in common?

Well, it turns out that hypochondria is, in fact, derived from the same root, and is a combination of “hupos” (‘under’) and “khondros” (‘cartilage’). It literally means “below the (chest) cartilage”.

It came to mean what it did because back when the word was formed, the predominant medical theory was Humorism. They believed that there were four bodily fluids (‘humours’), Blood, Yellow Bile, Black Bile, and Phlegm. Because hypochondria was considered to be a sort of melancholy, it was associated with an imbalance of black bile, produced at the spleen, which, tying everything back together, is located right below the chest cartilage.

So, even in a modern medical term, vestiges of this ancient Greek theory of medicine still show up. Similar sorts of effects from this theory have persisted in the older psychological terms referring to somebody as sanguine (‘full of blood’), bilious (‘full of bile’), or phlegmatic (‘phlegm-ful’).

Embedded history

Languages are always changing, as are the cultures that use them. However, when new words are created, they often provide a snapshot of the culture at that time. With time, people start to forget how exactly these words arose, but a little bit of digging for these origins can help you see not just the past of the word, but the past of the people who created it.


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