Bilious Attack

In a letter from December, 1887 Charles Frankish sends his condolences to a man who suffered a "bilious attack." As someone who is interested in medical history, my interest was piqued. I looked up the term "bilious attack," and the internet returned the following Merriam Webster definition:

A. biology : of or relating to a yellow or greenish fluid that is secreted by the liver and that aids especially in the emulsification and absorption of fats - of or relating to bile

B. biology : marked by or suffering from liver dysfunction and especially excessive secretion of bile - a bilious attack - a bilious patient

C. appearing as if affected by a bilious disorder - a sickly bilious face


Apparently this man had some sort of liver disease, which was known as a bilious attack at the time. Reading further I came across this passage on the Merriam Webster website:


Bilious is one of several words whose origins trace to the old belief that four bodily humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) control temperament. Just like phlegmatic ("of a slow and stolid phlegm-driven character"), melancholy ("experiencing dejection associated with black bile"), and sanguine ("of a cheerful, blood-based disposition"), bilious suggests a personality associated with an excess of one of the humors - in this case, yellow bile. Bilious, which first appeared in English in the mid-1500s, derives from the Middle French bilieux, which in turn traces to bilis, Latin for bile. In the past, "bile" was also called choler, which gives us choleric, a synonym of bilious.


It is interesting how ideas influence language, even after the ideas have gone out of vogue. For example, liver spots are not related to the liver at all and are instead caused by sun exposure, almost like a large freckle. However, liver spots were named because people once believed they were a symptom of liver problems. So even though we know they are not caused by liver disease, language has not adjusted to our new knowledge.

It is also interesting how words originally used for medical conditions, become associated with personality traits. I'm sure there is a historical reason for this, but I don't know what it is. All I know is that I've used the word melancholy many times and never meant for it to be related to black bile.