Medieval Medicine and GRE Vocab

Bring on the leeches.

Students preparing to take the GRE are always trying to find new tricks for learning all those obscure vocabulary words that the test makers love to cram into the verbal portion of the exam. Sometimes knowing a little history can make it easier to remember a vocab word, or even several. Melancholic, choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, humor, and temperament are some of the most commonly tested words on the GRE, and while they might look hard to remember (and pronounce), knowing where they come from and the strange relationship they have to the dark ages will ensure that they stick in your mind when exam day comes.

Medicine in medieval times was a far cry from what it has become today. Before vaccines, antibiotics, X-rays, and CAT scans, people had some funny ideas about how the body worked, and the cures of medieval doctors were probably just as likely to kill you as they were to make you better. In the middle ages, people believed that everything in the world was composed of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire (this was also before the periodic table). This included you, and doctors believed that each element was represented in your body by a bodily fluid, or humor: black bile for earth, yellow bile for fire, blood for air, and phlegm for water (pretty gross, right?). They believed that illnesses were caused by an imbalance of these four humors – if you had too much black bile, that would cause certain diseases; too much phlegm would cause others. Regardless of what ailed you, the doctor’s prescription was nearly always the same. Using leaches or a good old-fashioned, unsterilized knife, they would bleed you regularly until you either got better or died (and you thought getting a shot was bad!).

Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1514 engraving, Melancholia I

So, what does this have to do with GRE vocab, you ask? Well, medieval doctors also believed that some people naturally tended to produce an excess of one of the humors, and that this excess would express itself in such a person’s personality, or temperament. Black bile was known in Greek as melancholer (in Greek, melan = black (as in melanoma, Melanesia, melanin, etc.) and choler = bile), and if you had too much black bile, you were said to be melancholic. Because black bile was associated with earth, and because earth is the heaviest of the elements, this meant that you would spend your time thinking about heavy thoughts, and you might be slightly depressed. Philosophers were thought to be a melancholic bunch.

Yellow bile was simply known as choler, and if you had too much of that, you were choleric. Because yellow bile was associated with fire, this meant you were likely to have a fiery temper and be quick to anger.

If you take a romance language (a language descended from Latin – Latin was the language of ancient Rome, hence romance language) as a foreign language, you will know that the word “blood” translates as sang (French), sangre (Spanish), or sangue (Italian). It is no surprise then, that the Latin root sang means blood. If you had too much blood, you were sanguine. Because blood was associated with air, and air is the lightest of the elements, sanguine people were thought to be more cheerful, optimistic, energetic, and bold. Today, the word sanguine can also still mean bloody, or literally having to do with blood.

An 18th century engraving of the four temperaments.

Lastly, if you had too much phlegm, you were said to be phlegmatic. Because phlegm was associated with water, and water is kind of wishy-washy, phlegmatic people were likely to just go with the flow and be easy-going, laid back, and even apathetic or detached from the world. Today, a phlegmatic person would likely say “whatever, dude” to just about everything.

While medicine has thankfully moved on since the middle ages, these words have lived on as descriptions of people’s personality types, and the GRE test makers love them. Also remember that while the word “humor” normally refers to jokes and other funny stuff today, it can also refer to a person’s mood more generally, as in “he was in a good/bad humor today” (and you can bet the unusual definition is going to be the one on the GRE. The word “temperament” refers to a person’s personality, or disposition. If a person is temperamental, though, that means he or she is moody and unpredictable, the idea being that his or her humors are constantly swinging in and out of balance.

So there you go – seven great GRE vocab words for the price of one!

 

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