It’s a sign of intelligence, apparently, just like bad handwriting, introversion, doodling, not being a morning person, and all the other much-maligned quirks and traits that smart people like to tell you all smart people have in common. But what exactly is hypochondria?
You’ll probably recognise the hypo– prefix from dozens of other words like hypodermic and hypothermia. Derived from Greek, it literally means “under”, or “below”. So a hypodermic needle passes under the skin. Hypothermia is dangerously decreased temperature. The hypotenuse is the line that literally “stretches below” the other two in a right-angled triangle. And a hypothesis is the idea forming the basis of an argument, literally beneath everything else.
The –chondria part, though, is more complex, or at least more unusual. It derives from the Greek word for bodily cartilage, khondros, which is a distant etymological cousin of words like grind and grounds. But how did a word meaning something like “below the cartilage” come to mean “anxious about one’s health”?
To answer that we have to go back to the early days of medicine, when physicians blamed just about every condition you can think of on the Four Humours—no, not the Marx Brothers, but four bodily secretions (namely blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), the correct balance of which was necessary for a healthy life. Each of the four was said to be produced in a different organ or region of the body, and an excess of any one of them was enough to cause you problems.
Of the four, black bile was said to be produced in the spleen, the blood-filtering organ found just below the protective cartilage of the ribcage—the hypochondrium. If the spleen or any of the other visceral organs in this area acted up, then an excess of black bile would be produced that could, it was believed, cause feelings of depression and anxiety.
We still use the Greek name for “black bile”, melancholia, to describe these kinds of feelings today, and, ultimately, we still call a feeling of anxiety about one’s health hypochondria.