whenever my hypos get an upper hand [Moby-Dick]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Prudence, Jun 15, 2006.

  1. Prudence Member

    Australia - English

    I'm having trouble interpretting Herman Melville's meaning of "hypos" in "Moby-Dick". He's describing his anger/melancholy and the need to vent his spleen...

    especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me

    I'm baffled. Can anyone help?

  2. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    A hypo in this context is a period of depression, of deep gloom, of morbid low spirits.

    ... moments of extreme hypochondria.
  3. Prudence Member

    Australia - English
    Thank you very much.
  4. thinkyhead New Member

    English - US
    You know, "hypochondrias" just doesn't seem right to my ear. In the context of the paragraph, and in reference to Ishmael's having to restrain himself from "methodically knocking people's hats off" I think here the word "hypos" refers to "hypotheticals." Otherwise, why would this feeling extend to a disdain for other people? I have only heard "hypotheticals" shortened to "hypos" in law classes. But maybe in Melville's day "hypos" just meant hypothetical attitudes about class or politics, or "the way things ought to be." Well, it's just one hypothesis... d'oh!

    It's certainly not easy to figure out from Google's NGram Viewer whether that was a common usage. (Argh, can't post links here as a new user!) Well, if you enter "hypos, hypotheticals, hypochondrias" into the NGram viewer it looks like "hypotheticals" trades places with "hypos" around 1822. But then also "hypochondrias" has an unprecedented bump at that same time. Don't even bother with "hypotheses" - it outstrips them all.
  5. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Hi thinkyhead - welcome to the forums!

    The OED agrees with panj:
    You may be thinking of the modern - layman's - meaning of "hypochondria"; the older technical meaning (again according to the OED) was (my red highlighting):
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2011
  6. thinkyhead New Member

    English - US
    Ah, well if that was Melville's intentional choice, then I will have to assume it was a bad one. Hypochondriacs don't target people's hats, but people who think too much might. Perhaps the word once more generally meant worry.
  7. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    The word "hypochondria," in the early 19th century, was a synonym for "spleen": depression with fits of rage. (See, for instance, Baudelaire's Paris Spleen for an example of how suffering from spleen can be associated with various kinds of violent outbursts. Some people argue that we would now think of spleen as manic-depressiveness, or simply depression, which need not exclude violently destructive behavior.)

    There was no concept of "hypochondria" as "imaginary, neurotic sickness" until the late 19th century (that's when you get Proust's Tante Léonie and Mann's Magic Mounties, who were pretty much novel types in literature). Obviously there is a relationship between the early-19th-century mental disorders like spleen, Romantic hallucination, and hypochondria and the late-19th-century ones like masochism, schizophrenia, and hysteria, but we have to be historically sensitive to the (dramatically!) changing nature of medico-psychological discourse in the 19th century.
  8. thinkyhead New Member

    English - US
    I see! Well of course I've heard the construction in British English "to vent spleen" which is another way of saying "bilious" and that is near enough. It's interesting that "hypochondria" only later refers to imagined sickness, but I guess it does have a pretty queer etymology. Basically, from the Greek, it seems to mean "insufficient cartilage" or perhaps "insufficient grains" (as in grains of sand). So I could definitely see this as meaning "irritable" in the original sense.
  9. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    You need to check your etymology rather than guessing it. ὑποχόνδριος from ὑπό "below" + χόνδρος "cartilage" - meaning the upper abdomen, once thought to be the seat of melancholy. The word hypochondrium remains normal medical terminology for the area of the abdomen immediately below the edge of the ribcage.
  10. thinkyhead New Member

    English - US
    Thanks for the info Andy! Getting the facts straight is why I sometimes post my lame half-formed ideas in forums. Finding accurate information through Google is not always a reliable prospect.
  11. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Wouldn't the word be related to hyper, like a child who eats too much chocolate: strong emotions, certain urgency, inability to stay still?
  12. pops91710

    pops91710 Senior Member

    Chino, California
    English, AE
    No. Hyper is, well.. hyper, which has the complete opposite meaning to hypo. Hypoactive means underactive, your kind of "hyper" is short for hyperactive (overactive).
  13. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Yes, you are right. Hypo means under in Greek. So it would be most likely his downs, his depression.
  14. vinut New Member

    English - US
    I noticed, in chapter 74, "This whale is not dead; he is only dispirited; out of sorts, perhaps; hypochondriac; and so supine, that the hinges of his jaw have relaxed, leaving him there in that ungainly sort of plight, a reproach to all his tribe, who must, no doubt, imprecate lock-jaws upon him." Which bears out what others have been saying.
  15. Marwell New Member

    A few paragraphs later, Ishmael continues: "Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I ...". That settles it (with a chuckle).
  16. Marwell New Member

    <---> Well, #1, why resort to 150 years delayed dictionary take when, actually, Ishmael himself explains what he meant (if only readers read). And he's funny. And #2, one of the nice things about forums is multitude; if there are 50 hopefully meaningful, hopefully varied answers here, someone may later benefit. Let them choose. <--->

    <---> Chat removed. Cagey, moderator.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 13, 2015
  17. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    It's rather difficult to understand what you mean by this post. Could you explain either what you are asking or what you are saying?

    PS. Looking back, I see that a character fails to display in my post #9. That might be the character set of my tablet or the forum software. The English form of the Greek word is "hupochondros"
  18. Marwell New Member

    Ishmael is playing with words (besides saying that mood swings sometimes take control over him): "... whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me ... " (notice that `hypos` are getting an `upper` hand; `hypo` = below, lower)

    A few paragraphs later, Ishmael resumes and clarifies - in a mixture of self-deprecating and self-elevating glee - what he meant by `hypos getting such an upper hand`: "Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs ... " (i.e. turning aimless, gloomy as well as turning into a person obsessing needlessly over own health).

    Here's what authors of Wikipedia entry write about Moby-Dick's style: "The superabundant vocabulary of the work can be broken down into strategies used individually and in combination. First, the original modification of words as "Leviathanism"[24] and the exaggerated repetition of modified words, as in the series "pitiable", "pity", "pitied" and "piteous" (Ch. 81, "The Pequod Meets the Virgin"),[25] Second, the use of existing words in new ways, as when the whale "heaps" and "tasks."[24] Third, words lifted from specialized fields, as "fossiliferous".[24] Fourth, ..." (Moby-Dick - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

    That same paragraph (it is one of the first paragraphs of the book) goes on, showing off what's ahead for the reader in terms of "superabundant vocabulary"; reading the whole thing:*

    "Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick- grow quarrelsome- don't sleep of nights- do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;- no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. ... "

    Since up to 4 sentences of quoting are permitted here, and since Moby-Dick is in public domain, please visit:Moby-Dick; or, The Whale - Chapter 1 - Loomings for the remaining ~750 pages.

    EDIT: I've quite enlarged the original 2-sentence post (for the sake of the great book, not 19th century shifting usage of `hypo`, although, that's how it started, of course).

    * Edited at request of poster to reduce quotation. Cagey, moderator.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 13, 2015
  19. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    Oh, I see. Your first post was just to say that you agreed with previous posts that when Melville wrote "hypo" he meant "low mood" or "melancholia".

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