melancholy

It’s not a word for a dog with a canteloupe, but it is humorous. You protest? Well, melancholy is, in its first meaning, black bile, one of the four humours (vital fluids of the body) believed to govern temperament: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Those with an excess of one or another were particularly humorous types, in the words of the 17th century: if you were phlegmatic, you were slow and stodgy; if you were sanguine (too much blood), you were very happy and optimistic; if you were choleric (too much yellow bile), you were too disposed to anger; and if you were melancholic – too much melancholy, black bile – you were, in modern parlance, depressive. The melan comes from Greek for “black” – you will recognize it in melanin, of which Northern European types like me have little, causing us to sunburn more easily and thus be at higher risk for melanoma, the diagnosis of which may surely be cause for melancholy. The choly comes from Greek for “bile.”

This word may have something of a melodious air, with the two liquid l’s and the nasals run between them, but the melody is probably Melancholy Baby or something by Patsy Cline. Or perhaps by Marie-Lynn Hammond, who is herself an avid word taster and has spun out her thoughts on this word:

To me it’s one of those words that sounds like what it means… sort of endless and mostly kind of soft and dreary and amorphous, except for the hard ch – a little edge buried deep in the middle like the thing that might be causing the melancholy… but then there’s holy at the end too, though I know it’s part of choly really, but still, interesting…! Feeling melancholy was kind of a religion for me as an angst-ridden teen. When I was 15, I wrote a typical teen poem called “Poem in Grey” that began “Strongly, harshly, the wild wet wind…” and went on to describe various grey/forlorn nature images, and it ended “The opal of their melancholy is mine/Set forever in the silver darkness of my soul” – Well! Did I ever get flak for that from Sister Emma, my English teacher, for referring to my soul as “dark.” I guess unless I had a mortal sin on it, it shouldn’t have been dark, even silvery dark.

Instead, it seems, Sister Emma’s mood was dark – we may wonder if it, too, was melancholy, as mood is the noun perhaps most commonly modified by melancholy. One is tempted to speculate whether her anatomy was melancholy, too, but only by Anatomy of Melancholy, the 1621 work by Robert Burton. At any rate, she would not have been reading The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya even if it were available then; manga are not favoured reading of humourless, humorous nuns.

Do you have word tasting thoughts you’d like to share? They are welcome!

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