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Humours, saudade, sawda, melancholy

Ancient Greek medicine held that the human body was filled with four basic substances. These bodily fluids are known today as humours, which in a healthy person were maintained in balance. All diseases and disabilities sprung from an excess or deficit of one or more humours. Indeed, a person’s psychological make-up was largely defined by the composition and inter-relation of humours in their body.

The four humours were blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm; or the sanguine, melancholic, choleric and phlegmatic humours, to use their classical names.

Aristotle’s follower Theophrastus developed a set of character types based on the humours. Those with a preponderance of blood were sanguine; those with too much phlegm were phlegmatic; too much yellow bile choleric; and too much black bile melancholic.

This theory was adopted and developed in classical Arabic medicine. There is a curious etymological repercussion of this. The Arabic word sawda was used to designate black bile. A surfeit of black bile (and thus melancholy) was said to be provoked by love. This explains how sawda gave rise to the Turkish word sevda, meaning love or caressing, and then to the Bosnian word sawda, which is often said to have a similar resonance to the famously ‘untranslatable’ Portuguese word, saudade.

It is rather agreeable, to me, at least, to imagine that the root of saudade and sawda might be the same, given that the Portuguese word has its (obscure) origins in the Thireteenth Century.

The best I could come up with on the internet was a certain Castro (1980), in Patrick Farrell’s dissertation on saudade and other words of longing, who asserted both the untranslatability of saudade and that it came from the Arabic saudah. But, as Farrell rather laconically observes, “unfortunately, no evidence is given to substantiate this claim”.

Now, as any fule kno, there is no such thing as an ‘untranslatable’ word. A less catchy but more linguistically accurate way to describe saudade, for example, is ‘a word which has no precise equivalent in English, but of which the various shades may be rendered more or less accurately by way of sensitive paraphrase’.

That said, based on my entirely unproven armchair etymological analysis, the English word ‘melancholy’ does seem to be quite close to saudade. For an in-depth investigation of the myriad applications of saudade, I refer you to Farrell’s comprehensive study mentioned above. For the canonical text on melancholy, Burton’s Anatomy thereof remains, well, canonical:

All my joys to this are folly
Naught so sweet as melancholy.

There is no doubt that saudade is a bigger word than melancholy, a more important word, and vastly more current. But the more I think about it in light of the possible shared origin, the more it seems that the two are indeed kindred.

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