Most adorable mug shot ever!
Though hysteria has a two thousand-year history of using women’s bodies to opress them, the term was first adopted by medical circles in 1801, as an adaptation of the latin hysteric. The concept of hysteria and hysterics profoundly influenced the lives of women throughout the nineteenth century, regulating them to asylums, and providing a source of comedy, as evidenced through the colloquialism high strikes, or highstrikes, a comedic mispronunciation of hysterics that was popularized soon after hysteria made it into medical journals.
Many people prefer to attribute hysteria’s origins to Hippocrates, but the term doesn’t show up anywhere in the Hippocratic corpus. The Hippocratic corpus did lay the ground work for wandering womb theory, which became linked to the supposed symptoms of hysteria, the way that epileptic seizures were linked to an ability to communicate directly with God. Like belief in these conversations with God, wandering womb theory hung around in Europe for centuries.
Throughout the nineteenth century, hysteria was promoted as a medical condition caused by disturbances of the uterus (from the Greek ὑστέρα hystera “uterus”). Hysteria was often used to describe postpartum depression, but could be used to diagnose any characteristic people disliked about any particular woman. Historian, Laura Briggs, demonstrated how one Victorian physician compiled a seventy-five page list of possible symptoms of hysteria, and still called the list incomplete.
Because of hysteria’s use (and abuse) as a medical catchall, and an improved understanding of the body, hysteria is no longer a legitimate medical diagnosis. When we use the term today, we usually use it as part of the phrase mass hysteria to describe the way the people who watch Fox News react to things like ebola.
However, terms, like highstrikes, currently appear in the manuscript of the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. The inclusion of such loaded terms fills me with a sense of responsibility to instruct my readers on the appropriate use of such terms, which is an exercise that no dictionary I’ve ever read has ever participated in.
As I edit, I find myself including notes that explain the connotations of such words, but I wonder if there are some words that shouldn’t be included at all.
This post is reposted from my other blog.
I must tell you beforehand that Mr. Morris doesn’t always speak slang—that is to say, he never does so to strangers or before them, for he is really well educated and has exquisite manners—but he found out that it amused me to hear him talk American slang, and whenever I was present, and there was no one to be shocked, he said such funny things. I am afraid, my dear, he has to invent it all, for it fits exactly into whatever else he has to say. But this is a way slang has. I do not know myself if I shall ever speak slang; I do not know if Arthur likes it, as I have never heard him use any as yet. – Bram Stoker, Dracula
In that passage from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy is writing to Mina. In it, she provides a wonderful peak into late-Victorian usage of colloquial language, from an upper-class woman’s perspective. Her description reminds me of when I first had to describe to my daughter the appropriateness of swearing:
“Certain words have the power to hurt people, some of those words also seem to amuse other people, and some of them are appropriate to use some of the time, but you have to be careful when using them. Pay attention to who you are speaking with, and never say anything like that in front of grandma, a teacher, or someone younger than you.”
That’s why Mr. Morris never speaks slang to strangers. He knows Lucy finds it funny, so he does it to make her laugh. As of yet, Lucy is not sure she will ever find an appropriate situation to use slang.
Passages throughout Dracula demonstrate how the use of slang and profanities was informed by gender and class.
In Dracula, Stoker makes the old seaman speak in a phonetically-spelled Whitby accent, littered with colloquialisms.
“An’ when you said you’d report me for usin’ of obscene language that was ’ittin’ me over the ’ead; but the ’arf-quid made that all right. I weren’t a-goin’ to fight, so I waited for the food, and did with my ’owl as the wolves, and lions, and tigers does. But, Lor’ love yer ’art, now that the old ’ooman has stuck a chunk of her tea-cake in me, an’ rinsed me out with her bloomin’ old teapot, and I’ve lit hup, you may scratch my ears for all you’re worth, and won’t git even a growl out of me. Drive along with your questions. I know what yer a-comin’ at, that ’ere escaped wolf.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
I’ve never enjoyed reading phonetically spelled dialects, but this passage adds to what Lucy has to say about colloquial language by offering a working-class male perspective. Even as a working-class man, he recognizes that some words are obscene, though he appears to have developed such a habit of using obscene words that he doesn’t always remember to think about his audience when speaking.
Though this is just one late-Victorian writer’s perspective on the use of Victorian language, it’s something to consider when deciding whether a character you’ve set in the era would use the word ‘fuck.’