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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The persistence of the theory of humours


My family having been remarkably resilient this autumn against the colds that usually afflict us, I have looked at the OED definition of ‘cold’ in the medical sense: ‘As a mass noun: disease attributed to an excess of the quality of coldness within the body or part of the body, to a superfluity of cold humours (esp. phlegm), or to exposure to low temperature; (in later use) spec. acute and self-limited catarrhal illness of the upper respiratory tract.’

‘A superfluity of cold humours’? When was this written? Humours, as a medical term, ceased to be part of serious medical terminology in the nineteenth century. Is this a case of deliberately outdated but stylish language? The last sentence reverts to a more expected style, preceded with the ‘(in later use)’. Does this mean that the earlier definition, presumably applied to earlier thinking, merited this archaic terminology?  The OED does not usually do this; witness the definition for the more or less obsolete term ‘ague’ – ‘An acute or high fever; disease, or a disease, characterized by such fever, esp. when recurring periodically, spec. malaria. Also: a malarial paroxysm, or (esp. in later use) the initial stage of such a paroxysm, marked by an intense feeling of cold and shivering. Now chiefly hist.  Or ‘dropsy’: ‘A morbid condition characterized by the accumulation of watery fluid in the serous cavities or the connective tissue of the body.’

All very curious. And possibly helpful when needing to take a sicky; just email in saying you have been affected by a superfluity of cold humours. No doubt work will find it very humorous. 

By the way, How to Cure the Plague, and Other Curious Remedies is published on 10th October 2013 http://publishing.bl.uk/book/how-cure-plague