×

We've got news for you.

Register on Sunday Times at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

Are you hectic with cold sweats? If not, it’s a mutation at work

Ideas

A WORD IN THE HAND: HECTIC

Are you hectic with cold sweats? If not, it’s a mutation at work

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
The late Howard Hesseman played ‘Doctor’ Johnny Fever in cult series ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’. If you want a hectic TV show, go vintage for fever.
HECTIC 80S STYLE The late Howard Hesseman played ‘Doctor’ Johnny Fever in cult series ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’. If you want a hectic TV show, go vintage for fever.
Image: Supplied

As a fellow word-lover pointed out to me this week, one of the English words that is most abused, misused and overused in common parlance today is “hectic”.

She is totally correct. (Or just correct, if you want to avoid tautology.)

Here are some recent conversational examples:

1. “How’s your work going?”

“It’s hectic!”

2. “What do you think of the fracas involving President Ramaphosa and the millions in the mattress?”

“Hectic, dude!”

3. “Did you know some airlines in SA have been grounded?”

“I know! It’s hectic!”

4. “Sean Davison was sentenced to three years of house arrest for assisting terminally suffering people to voluntarily end their lives.”

“Jeez, that’s hectic”

5. “Justin Bieber has facial paralysis.”

“OMG, so hectic!”

I could go on, but you get my drift.

“Hectic”, in our times, can mean anything from busy to tragic to scary to unexpected.

The original meaning of hectic is some way away from all these modern interpretations.

I have been reading Operation Mincemeat, a meticulously researched work of non-fiction by Ben McIntyre, who stands up there alongside SA’s Jonathan Ancer in his evocative retelling of real-life spy stories.

The book has been republished to coincide with the release of the movie starring Colin Firth. Readers can’t miss this, both because there is a picture of the film cast on the new cover, as well as a big orange circle containing the words: “NOW A MAJOR FILM”.

(Isn’t it odd how no one ever blares out the release of a minor film, or a mediocre novel that didn’t sell many copies?)

Anyway, in the book Operation Mincemeat, McIntyre invokes the original meaning of “hectic” in this paragraph:

“On 13 March 1925, he caught influenza, which developed into bronchial pneumonia, with ‘a hectic temperature, copious and foul-smelling expectoration, very weak and depressed’. He stopped eating.”

Passion and fever can easily be commingled, but no one, in the Tudor age, would have called their job ‘hectic’. 

That situation is indeed hectic, and makes a sham of the willy-nilly way we toss the word about now.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the evolution of “hectic” back to the 14th century, when it entered English from the French etik, meaning “a hectic fever”.

Going further back, hectic comes from the Latin hecticus and the ancient Greek hektikos, both referring to slowly debilitating diseases or fevers.

Hectic fevers are characterised by rapid pulse, flushed cheeks, hot skin, emaciation,” says the OED. “In English, applied particularly to the wasting fevers, rising and falling with the hours of the day, characteristic of tuberculosis.”

As we are well aware from the flagrant disregard for the real meaning of hectic today, the word did not remain wedded to illness. 

In 15th-century Middle English, hectic became popular as a word referring to feverish desire or consuming passion. This rolled on to the time of King Henry VIII, who was nothing if not hectic in his passions.

Passion and fever can easily be commingled, but no one, in the Tudor age, would have called their job “hectic”. 

Only about a century ago did hectic take on the meaning now familiar to us, describing something that is crazy, exciting, unsettling, disorganised or surprising.

How are mighty words fallen.

The far-from-faultless Merriam-Webster dictionary (which anyone who reads my “Incidentally” column in the Sunday Times print edition might recall bizarrely defines South Africans as “Afrikaners”) nevertheless has a useful comment on the evolution of “hectic”:

“Some people are bothered by changes in a word’s meaning (see: literally), while others have a more relaxed attitude towards semantic drift. For those who feel vexed when a word seems to have suddenly changed its spots, it may be of some comfort to know that words in English do this all the time; crisis is a fine example. Originally, crisis denoted ‘the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever’. Now it most commonly means ‘a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention’, yet few people insist it should be used exclusively in its older meaning. The normality of semantic change can be seen in another word that first appeared in febrile contexts: hectic, which now is primarily used to mean ‘very busy’, originally referred to a fever that was fluctuating but recurrent.”

Words move on in meaning, and we must move with them. 

I do, however, find the demotion of hectic — from fever to excitement to merely busy or slightly unusual — to be a bit of a hectic slur on language, but then I’m a hectic pedant, and for this I make no apologies.

subscribe