Humour is a strange word, in so far as we mostly use it in a very limited way today, a way that does not reflect the original wide range of its meanings. But such could be said of a host of other words in our current common parlance, which we use to describe certain instruments of human perception and expression. ‘Intellect’ being another one, a word that originally was never meant to be limited solely to a dry rational faculty. The constant confusion between words such as ‘spirit’, ‘self’ and ‘soul’ in modern language is another example (at least the learned people in medieval Europe and in the classic Islamic Era knew quite well that these three are completely different parts of our being). The word humour has also changed its meaning in a way that has made it more precise in some ways but also caused it to lose much of its original subtlety.
The word humour is originally a Latin transliteration of the ancient Greek χυμός (chymos), a word that literally means juice or sap but that, similar to the Sanskrit râsa, can also metaphorically mean ‘flavour’. According to the medical theory of the ancient Greeks, a tradition that we identify with ancient scholars such as Hippocrates and Galen, four ‘juices’ are flowing within every human being’s body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile. And it is the precise mixture and balance of these juices that determines both the character of an individual and their state of health.
The contemporary reader will recognise three of these juices easily as actually existing fluids of the human body. But the fourth will probably be a mystery to many. What is this enigmatic ‘black bile’? Blood and phlegm are easy to recognise. We also know the ‘yellow bile’ that we usually just call ‘bile‘, even though we also know that it is somehow related to bilirubin, the source of the characteristic skin colour that sufferers of diseases such as ‘yellow fever’, hepatitis and liver cirrhosis often acquire. Strangely, as a remnant of the old Greek idea of a connection between these humours and character traits, we also associate ‘bile’ and ‘bilous’ with unpleasant behaviour. But this ‘black bile’ is a stranger to most of us. At least it seems to be. In truth, it isn’t that much of a stranger to us. We only use words derived from it in their ancient Greek form. In ancient Greek, ‘black bile’ was called μέλαινα χολή (melaina chole). From which derives our word ‘melancholy’. A person who is melancholic is literally a person who suffers from an imbalance (usually an excess) of ‘black bile’.