Hysteria, Highstrikes, and Hysterics

Woman with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis.

Woman with hysteria under the effects of hypnosis.

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.

hysterical_woman_6628Because 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.

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The Etymology of a Dunce

duncecapA variation of the word ‘dunce’ appears in the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties. ‘Dunce’ is one of those words that has a more interesting history because it comes from somebody’s name: Duns Scotus.

Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was no dummy. He’s generally considered one of the most important philosophers of the Middle Ages.

Scotus was  ordained as a Catholic priest at the Church of Saint Andrew in Northampton, England, in 1291. That he was called Johannes Duns suggests that he was from Duns, in Berwickshire, Scotland, because it was traditional to call people by their Christian name followed by their hometown.


Duns Scotus

Scotus’ philosophies helped shape modern Catholicism. He’s often associated with voluntarism, the tendency to emphasize God’s will and human freedom in all philosophical issues. His philosophy argued for the existence of God, and emphasized the relationships between all living things. He also defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Pope Pius IX’s 1854 declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception uses Scotus’ arguments on the subject, “at the first moment of Her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ.” Scotus’ position was hailed as “a correct expression of the faith of the Apostles.”

But people didn’t always think Scotus was so clever, and it’s amazing what a lasting impression criticism can have on our language. Sixteenth-century philosophers, who liked Scotus’ work were called ‘Dunse’ (like some people are called Marxist or Kantian). For the most part, sixteenth-century philosophers disliked Scotus’ work, and accused him of sophistry. Hence, as a variation of ‘Dunse’ the term ‘dunce’ was born, meaning “somebody who is incapable of scholarship.”