The Grammarphobia Blog

Blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy

Q: Recently, I heard an NPR reporter use “sanguine” to mean pessimistic, not hopeful, as my Webster’s unabridged defines it. I’ve heard “sanguine” used this way many, many times, and each time my blood pressure rises. Is there something I’m missing about the meaning of this word?

A: No, “sanguine” means optimistic, hopeful, or confident, not pessimistic, but it’s a colorful word with an interesting history. Your question gives me a chance to write about it.

The adjective “sanguine” is related to the Latin sanguis (“blood”), and originally meant “blood-red” when it showed up in English in the 14th century. In fact, it can still mean reddish or ruddy today.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites this early example of the reddish usage from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (circa 1386): “His colour was sangwyn.”

The association of the word with a ruddy complexion, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, led to the use of “sanguine” to mean cheerful, hopeful, or confident.

Why? Because a “sanguine” complexion was once believed to indicate “the predominance of blood over the other humors.”

In medieval physiology, the four humors (or fluids) of the body were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile).

These supposedly determined a person’s temperament as well as his physical and mental health. Imbalances among the humors were blamed for pain and disease.

A temperament governed by blood was buoyant, by phlegm was sluggish, by choler was quick-tempered, and by melancholy was dejected, according to this system.

The OED says “sanguine” has meant what it does today –”disposed to hopefulness or confidence of success” – since 1509.

But “sanguine” has another meaning as well: bloodthirsty. It’s had this sense since the early 18th century, though the usage is now considered poetic or rhetorical, according to the OED.

Never, as far as I can tell, has “sanguine” meant its opposite: lacking in hope or confidence. Although you’re right about this, I hope you watch your blood pressure when you hear the word misused.

A sanguine complexion isn’t necessarily considered a good sign these days.

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