Hypochondria is a confusing word

I was going to go into this in the last post, but I realised it would be too long and distracting, so for all you etymology lovers out there, here it is.

As established, today hypochondria means a conviction that one is or is likely to become ill, often involving symptoms when illness is non-present.

Sounds straightforward, but this definition has always confused me. Hypo means below, under, low etc. Hyper is the opposite. So if a condition involves an excess of symptoms or a continual fear of illness, shouldn’t it be called hyperchondria?

Pondering this, I discovered something interesting about its Greek roots. Hypo = below, but chondria, far from being any thing to do with illness, means cartilage.* Or in this case, specifically, ribcage.

Your hypochondria (well, hypochondrium) is the area of your abdomen below your ribcage. This definition is seemingly still in medical use.

How on earth did we get from oiled and naked Greek abdomens to constant worries about illness?

To find out we need to follow the word backwards. In the early 19th C, before we started thinking in terms imaginary, hypochondria was any illness for which the cause could not be determined. I’d imagine there were many more of those 200 years ago, which could be why hypochondria came to be seen as a common or malingering complaint.

In the 17th C it had yet to become associated with physical ailments, referring instead to depression or melancholy without real cause. Again, I guess approaches to mental health weren’t particularly sophisticated in 1666 (on the grounds that they often lack elegance today). Therefore it’s possible that any depressed peasant who couldn’t point to the freak haywain accident that had made them sad was determined to have hypochondria.

From this pastoral scene it’s a short hop back to our muscular Greeks, once we know that our abdominal organs were believed to house our melancholy. A physical problem in your stomach could have a mental effect. Simples.

Fascinating hypochondria history found here.

* Which I would have known if I’d remembered any thing about shark taxonomy.

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