m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

Black Bile

Someone mentioned melancholy on a mailing list, meaning by it nothing distinct from depression, but my ear picked it up and I wondered whether melancholy was still a legitimate affliction. (The answer appears to be no, it’s been replaced by melancholic depression.)

Melancholy is Greek for black bile, one of the four humours. (The Latin is atra bilis, which gives us the little-used adjective atrabilious but not much else.) Even if you believe man does not change, you have to admit that melancholy was formerly a humour to be kept in balance rather than a medical condition to be eradicated. I’m a strong Whorfian, so I think people who long ago believed in black bile are fundamentally different from those of us who today believe in serotonin.

So I was surprised to find myself, by a chain of wikipedia links, in the black bile camp. The source of my reactionary physiology is, strangely enough, the Arabic take on melancholy—not because of any inherent difference from the classical approach, but because of its influence on those European cultures which had the closest calls with dar al-Islam, from which it reached its Whorfian claws into me.

Black bile is usually translated huzn in Arabic, but sawda, black, is sometimes also taken to mean black bile or, alternately, love (apparently because love was one of the common causes of black bile imbalance). It is from sawda that some interesting words that no longer quite mean “black bile” allegedly spring. For example, the Bosnian word sevdah comes from sawda through the Turkish, and means love or longing. Sevdah is also the name of the national music of Bosnia.

Fado (fate) is the name of the national music of Portugal, but the associated word for melancholic longing is saudade, of uncertain etymology. I found its hypothetical origin in sawda in the Talk section of the saudade article and after some searching found a source for it (Castro, 1980) in this paper on the translation of saudade(s).

The traditional Latin etymology of saudade is laughable even to an armchair linguist: Latin solitate with the influence of other words. Said “influence” is supposed to explain the violation of all known sound laws on the way from solitate to saudade, not to mention the inexplicable semantic leap from “solitary” to “nostalgia,” with a bonus change in part of speech. That this folk etymology is itself quite old is no defense, nor is an unwillingness to admit that the most famous untranslatable word (and sentiment) in Portuguese is, in fact, Arabic in origin. (The -ade ending is pure Portuguese, marking an abstract noun.) This from a people who still say oxalá (inshallah).

The main trouble with the Arabic theory is a poor understanding of sawda itself: how, when, where (besides Turkey), and why it became a synonym of huzn (not to mention of “love”), and how it mutated, if it did, into the uniquely Portuguese sense of “nostalgia.”

Until yesterday I had my own personal folk etymology of saudade as being “influenced” by saúde, health. Saúde is in fact one of the words supposed to have turned the Latin solitate into the Arabic sawda, but my thoughts were more semantic than phonetic: saudade is no longer a bile imbalance or in any sense a negative or unhealthy condition in Portuguese. It is instead a fundamental part of the national character, the feeling that launched a thousand fados, and the proper balance of the humours.