Choler and melancholy

By | September 16, 2013

You don’t see the string chol in too many words except for fairly specialized terms in biochemistry or medicine, so I had to wonder whether there’s some connection between the words choleric, melancholy, and cholesterol. There is, and you can throw the word cholera into the mix too.

Choler entered English around the 14th century as a borrowing from French, which got it from Latin. It meant either bile or a digestive complaint. The latter meaning ultimately came from the Greek word cholericós, or bilious, and in that sense, it’s the ancestor of cholera, which originally probably referred to a serious gastrointestinal disorder in general and not just to what we today identify as cholera.

Bile was once associated with irritability and bad temper. Choler, of course, appears in choleric, which is still used today to describe an individual who is behaving irascibly. It was once considered essentially a personality type or tendency resulting from a preponderance of yellow bile (more on the four humors and their personality types on Wednesday).

Bile is synthesized in the liver and sent on to the gall bladder and thence to the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine1), where it plays an important role in the digestion of fats. Cholesterol is a waxy white crystalline substance that is also made in the liver. It was first found in gallstones (gall is another word for bile), and was originally called cholesterin. The name was derived from two Greek roots, cholé, or bile, and stereós, or solid; the word cholesterol came into use in 1894.

So what about melancholy? It was originally thought of as a morose outlook associated with a preponderance of black bile. Black bile was one of the four humors, or fluids, in ancient and medieval medicine, and was thought to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen. The Greek roots are mélanos, or black, and cholé. Mélanos also contributed to melanin, the name of a black pigment in human hair, skin, and eyes, and melanoma, the name of a dark-colored malignant skin tumor.

Melancholy also entered English around the 14th century via French and, ultimately, Latin. It was originally spelled melancolie or malancolie. The latter spelling arose because of a false association with the French word mal, or sickness (from the Latin malum, meaning misfortune or harm).

So there you have it, a somewhat unlikely set of companion words.

1 The name duodenum is a shorter form of intestinum duodenum digitorum, which describes it as the intestine that is about as long as twelve finger-widths.

Learn more:

  • Although cholesterol is demonized today, it actually plays a vital role in your body. This Cholesterol Overview from How Stuff Works gives a fairly balanced picture.
  • Many, many words have been written on depression and melancholy. The Ode on Melancholy by John Keats is not a bad place to start.