From ancient times well into the 19th century, Westerners believed that four bodily fluids governed human personality and health. These fluids, called humors, derived from the four elements–earth, fire, water, and air—because these four elements composed everything. The Latin word humor meant “moisture,” as in our English word humid. Stereotypes in drama and even our own sitcoms represent the four personality types connected with the four humors. (Or humours to the spelling-challenged Brits.)
The element earth presented in the body as black bile, the first of the four humors. An excess of this humor created depression. The Greek word melankolia, in fact, referred to black bile. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the melancholy Dane, clearly had too much black bile in his system.
Excessive fire equated with yellow bile, or choler, creating aggressiveness and anger. Petruchio describes the fiery Katherine as “choleric” in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Our word bilious, meaning “peevish,” is a remnant of this humoral connection.
Phlegm, associated with water, created laziness and indolence. Falstaff was phlegmatic. And in Henry IV, Prince Hal upbraids his lazy companions thusly: “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/The unyoked humour of your idleness.”
Blood was associated with the final element, air, but was believed to contain components of all four elements. If blood is your dominant humor, lucky you! You are courageous and optimistic, like Prince Hal! You have a sanguine, or cheerful, temperament, sanguine deriving from the Latin sanguis, meaning “blood.” The common medical practice of bloodletting was an effort to create an equilibrium among the four humors, a procedure that may have killed George Washington. Bloodletting, shockingly, continued into the 20th century.
In 1598, the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson’s comedy Every Man in His Humour, featuring an actor by the name of William Shakespeare, appeared in London, with characters exemplifying the four personality types. More recently, a blog called “My Fan Girl Life” finds the four character types in “Entourage,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Friends,” and other shows. Another writer relates the four Hogwarts houses in the Harry Potter books to the four humors.
The humors and their accompanying temperaments still live.
Humor, of course, has taken on a different meaning in modern English, although the old meaning survives in terms such as aqueous humor, the fluid between the lens and cornea of the eye. Eventually humor began to connote one’s mood or attitude, as in “Our boss was in good humor this morning.” Today’s common understanding of humor may have derived from this connection with a good mood. Or, our conception of humor as something funny may come from its common use in comedies like Jonson’s. Excess humors made people ridiculous.
Medical care based on bodily humors seems primitive to us moderns, but at least it focused on the body itself to diagnose illness, at natural causes as opposed to supernatural causes. It was a step up from blaming curses and demons.
Which temperament best describes you? Are you melancholy, choleric, phlegmatic, or sanguine? Or does it depend on the time of day?