My bloody New Year

The word sanguine, as I've always heard it used, is an adjective that describes someone who is happy and hopeful. But the word sanguinary means something that is, according to Webster's New World, "1. accompanied by much bloodshed or carnage 2. flowing with blood; bloodstained 3. eager for bloodshed; bloodthirsty." And exsanguinate means to drain of blood. All three words have the common Latin root of sanguis, which means blood. So what's sanguine's bloody history?

It goes back to the four humors of medieval times, which were "the four fluids of the body that were thought to determine a person’s temperament and features," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. There were four humors, and each was associated with a personality type:

  • blood (sanguine temperament)
  • black bile (melancholic)
  • yellow bile (choleric)
  • phlegm (phlegmatic)

Brittanica explains how those humors were thought to influence someone's personality:

According to these early theorists, emotional stability as well as general health depend on an appropriate balance among the four bodily humors; an excess of one may produce a particular bodily illness or an exaggerated personality trait. Thus, a person with an excess of blood would be expected to have a sanguine temperament—that is, to be optimistic, enthusiastic, and excitable. Too much black bile (dark blood perhaps mixed with other secretions) was believed to produce a melancholic temperament. An oversupply of yellow bile (secreted by the liver) would result in anger, irritability, and a “jaundiced” view of life. An abundance of phlegm (secreted in the respiratory passages) was alleged to make people stolid, apathetic, and undemonstrative.

Although the idea of humors has long since been slain by science, we still have the four personality words today.

Here's sanguine's full New World definition: "1. the color of blood; ruddy: said especially of complexions 2. in medieval physiology, having the warm, passionate and cheerful temperament and the healthy, ruddy complexion of one in whom the blood is the predominant humor of the four 3. cheerful and confident; optimistic; hopeful."

I'm actually surprised that the way I knew sanguine -- as someone who is cheerful -- is the third definition. I didn't know at all that it meant blood-colored.

One other fun, though obsolete, definition by way of the Oxford English Dictionary. Centuries ago, sanguine was used as a verb that meant "1. To stain or paint a sanguine color. 2. To stain with blood."