An Irishman's Diary
There’s no logic to language. Consider, for example, the word phlegm. It describes a thoroughly unpleasant phenomenon, especially prevalent at this time of year, and welcome only to pharmacists, who make small fortunes selling medicines to eradicate it.
Now consider the related adjective, phlegmatic. The first thing you notice is how the previously silent and apparently useless “g” has suddenly become the word’s active ingredient. In the process it has targeted the unattractive aspects of phlegm, and transformed them into something positive.
It’s true that phlegmatism can also have negative connotations. Possible meanings include sluggishness and apathy. A tendency to be passive-aggressive is sometimes implied too.
But for the most part, to be phlegmatic is to be calm, relaxed, dispassionate. Among European nations, the adjective is most often applied to the Dutch. And the Dutch are generally considered a good thing.
This meaning comes to us from the ancient Greeks, who believed the body had four main “humours” – blood, choler, black bile and phlegm – the balance of which determined personality. The four humours thus explained the “four temperaments”: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.
These all had positive traits. Melancholics, for example, could be highly creative, while cholerics were natural leaders. But combining coolness and consistency with curiosity and an eye for detail, phlegmatics were the ones cut out for careers in administration.
There is a fundamental contradiction here, however, because both phlegm and phlegmatic come from the Greek phlegma, or “heat”. Indeed, phlego means “burn”. And as students of mythology will know, the Phlegethon (literally “flaming“) was a river in the Greek underworld.
Plato described it as a stream of fire, coiling around the earth. But in Dante’s Inferno, where the Phlegethon flowed through the seventh circle of hell, it was full of boiling blood. As such, it was the punishment reserved for people who had committed violence on earth. Among those Dante saw floundering in it were Attila the Hun and someone he calls Alexander – usually presumed to be Alexander the Great, although there is some dispute about that (and since the man is depicted as being up to his eyeballs in the river, positive identification must have been difficult).
In any case, the incendiary origins of “phleg” are also preserved in English. They explain such terms as “flagrant” and “conflagration”. They survive too in the Latin phrase in flagrante delicto (literally “in blazing offence”), which unlike most Latin phrases, continues to be popular even outside the legal community, if only as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
To recap, therefore, the extreme coolness associated with a phlegmatic temperament and the extreme hot-headedness associated with sex and violence are close etymological cousins. So much for logic.
While we’re at it, we might be forgiven for thinking that a certain four-letter F-word – currently much used in this country – has a similar derivation. I refer of course to “flag”. There are obvious thought-associations here in that, when not being flown in Ireland, flags are usually being burned.
In fact, that’s a fairly common thing to do with flags the world over. But if flag is a cousin of flagrant, my OED hasn’t traced the link yet. It describes the former as being of “origin unknown”.
I note that, to aficionados of the Northern conflict, the things currently disputed at Belfast City Hall and elsewhere are not flags, but “flegs”. There is even a Twitter hashtag to this effect, collating the various comments. And I presume the “fleg” spelling is just a joke on local pronunciation. But I prefer to think of it as a reaching back to the word’s possible Greek roots.
In this sense, if you had an overactive imagination, you could see the protracted protests as a kind-of Phlegethon – a river of fire angrily circling Belfast city centre for all eternity, full of doomed souls and accompanied by the despairing wails of PSNI sirens, as a Dante-esque Tommy Gorman looks on and records the terrible scenes for those still on earth.
OK, that’s an overly bleak scenario. But by the same token, a more optimistic vision of the future is possible. After all, the very act of respelling the word as “fleg” suggests an ironic detachment from the row.
It hints that the growing number of tweeters and commentator using are above such petty passions. That while others may regard rectangular scraps of coloured material as being intrinsically important to their sense of identity, flags have no such power over them. Their view of reality is an altogether calmer and more rational one. In a word, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org