Hysteria

Not long ago a sixth former raised a query about the use of this word, and its origin. He is an avid reader, and had seen references in Victorian literature to hysteria being a medical diagnosis, of a condition suffered by women. Is it still a medical term, he wanted to know, and can men suffer from it? And—what was the connection of that word with ὕστερος?

I told him to research it, and he came up with things that I partly knew; that hystera* was the Greek word for the uterus; that the condition of hysteria was believed to originate in that organ – this being part of the theory that human emotions had their genesis in certain parts of the body; and well into the twentieth century doctors did diagnose hysteria as an explanation for uncontrollable behaviour, or indeed physical conditions, like paralysis or even blindness, that could not otherwise be explained. It seemed, as I listened to this, that the diagnosis was almost a catch-all for conditions that could not be accounted for.

However, by the middle of the 20th century, doctors seem to have accepted that this was not good physicianship. And since then, hysteria has become a general non-scientific term for extravagant or uncontrollable behaviour, including that of groups who catch it by imitation or by some unexplained contagion; and it is used indiscriminately about men and women.

The phrase mass hysteria has threatening implications, of crowds abandoning rationality and surrendering to forces that get out of control. Such an incident occurred in Athens at the trial of the generals after the battle of Arginusae: see earlier post http://teacherofclassics.com/?p=310

* ὑστέρα, from ὕστερος in its sense of further, upper; possibly sc. ὑστέρα μήτρα.