I read the Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller called Senator Kamala Harris “hysterical.”   http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/13/politics/powers-miller-kamala-harris-hysterical-sessions-hearing-ac360-cnntv/index.html

Let’s look at that word.  “Hysterical” means “feeling or showing extreme and unrestrained emotion.”   https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hysterical   I watched the hearing, and I did not see Senator Harris or any other Senator show extreme or unrestrained emotion.  So I disagree, but that is not my point.

The words “hysterical” and “hysteria” derive from Greek and Latin words referring to the womb.  Our English word “uterus” derives from those same Greek and Latin words.  Why the connection? Because “hysteria” was for centuries a mental illness attributable solely to women because they were women.  The presence of a womb was used to explain the physiology and psychology of women.  That is, this uniquely female organ was the basis for characterizing women as weak and easily influenced and emotional.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/  Because men did not have wombs, they were not subject to weakness and influence and emotion.   Fast forward to the recognition that men also could exhibit extreme emotions.  But it wasn’t until 1980 when the DSM changed “hysterical neurosis” to “conversion disorder,” a condition that can affect both men and women.

My point is that the origin of the word “hysteria” unquestionably degrades women:  because women have uteruses, they must be irrational. I doubt, however, that people today are referring to a woman’s uterus when they say that someone is “hysterical.”  But does that make these words any more palatable?

This could be an example of a variation on what Bryan Garner calls “skunked terms.”  This is what he says:

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use, even if it originated purely as the result of word-swapping or slipshod extension. Group 1 comprises various members of the literati, ranging from language aficionados to hard-core purists; Group 2 comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. As time goes by, Group 1 dwindles; meanwhile, Group 2 swells (even without an increase among the linguistic liberals).


Here, the original use of hysteria is offensive and wrong.  At what point, however, is the original meaning skunked out?  Is it acceptable to refer to a joke as “hysterical” or to describe the Predators fans at the final game of the Stanley Cup as “hysterical?”  Probably so.  But keep in mind that there are still some of us who know the origins of the words, so be wary about using any form of the word in connection with women.


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