When my husband told me the racist origins of “peanut gallery,” I struck it from my lexicon. I don’t want to think about how many times I said it.
I’m generally good about not pissing people off, but I still worried. How many other horrible things had I said in ignorance?
The only one I could think of was hysterical.
I cringed. As a word nerd, there was no excuse. I knew it was demeaning and dismissive. As a woman with serious gynecological and psychological problems, I was essentially offending myself. Horrified at myself, I vowed not to say it ever again.
My promise lasted only a week, if that.
Mortified, I tried to understand why I couldn’t stop. The word nerd point of view was a good place to start. Objectively, hysterical’s got an interesting sound. It’s got gradients of meaning. It rolls off the tongue, yet packs an innocuous punch. How else can you describe a parent’s apoplectic rage at the suggestion of microwaving a turkey?
But no matter how I tried to justify it, my reasons came up short. Considering the long list of stuff we shouldn’t say, it’s baffling that this word is still acceptable. No matter how tough the ban might be, there are too many reasons why it needs to die for good.
How “hysteria” became dangerous
Since the dawn of civilization, men have mansplained the uterus. Egyptian and Greek physicians thought that women’s wombs wandered around their bodies. The Melampus myth depicted a group of teenage girls as hysterical because they refused to worship Dionysus and wanted to get frisky with shepherds. Naturally, waving some herbs around the afflicted’s vaginas and noses — depending on where the womb was chilling that day — did the trick. Conveniently, marriage (a.k.a. permissible penis) was also a cure.
Hippocrates and his contemporaries, one of whom coined hysteria from the Greek hysterus (uterus), took it to another level. To these philosophers, the uterus was an animal. Accumulating period blood and “stagnant sexual humors” made women feral and incapable of rational thought. In other words, since women were perpetually between having sex and periods, they were…