• Paul Anthony Jones

Lymphatical

(adj.) given to wild fantasies and ideas; frenzied



The word lymphatical popped up on Haggard Hawks today, defined as describing someone who is “wild and frenzied,” or “inclined to bizarre fantasies and whims.”



If you’re familiar with the medical use of lymph or lymphatic, then this meaning might confuse you. Actually, even if you’re not, this meaning might still confuse you. So here’s a bit more about it.


The word lymph derives via Latin from a Greek word, lympae, meaning ‘waters’. That’s not a particularly familiar root to English speakers, as we tend to form water-related words using the prefix hydro– (a form of a much more general Greek word for water, hydor). Lympae, however, seems to have been used much more specifically of noticeably still or clear water; as well as lymph, it’s the origin of the English word limpid too.


Because bodily lymph—the fluid in our lymphatic system—is completely colourless and odourless like water, ancient anatomists simply connected the two. But how did that also inspire a word meaning ‘frenzied’?


Somewhere along the way, it seems, lympae became confused with nymph—a term from Greek mythology for a female sprite of nature or the elements. There’s even some suggestion that Lympae might once have been the name of a minor water goddess in Greek legend, but the evidence of that is fairly murky.


Before it came to be used of mythological creatures, however, nymph originally meant ‘bride’ in Greek; it’s actually related to the nuptials we celebrate today.


But the—how can we keep this PG-13?—stereotypical hot-blooded lasciviousness of newlywed women on their wedding nights ultimately led to the word nymph gaining a secondary association with, shall we say, frenzied behaviour. That’s where words like nymphette and nymphomaniac come from, and, thanks to a little bit of confusion with water and the water nymphs of Greek mythology, the word lymphatical too.



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