I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’ve been using the word hysterical wrong this whole time. And if you’re using the word in reference to a woman, you’ve been really wrong.
For starters, it’s not a synonym for hilarious. They’re two different words. There’s nothing funny about a hysterical person, someone who is literally in hysterics. According to Merriam-Webster’s, they are suffering from “psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychogenic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions” — a medical condition. So if you’ve ever referred to a “hysterical joke,” stop.
But even more insidious is the way that hysterical, when used to describe a person, has become gendered beyond recognition.
Last week Nike released its “Dream Crazier” ad, in which Serena Williams intones: “If [women] get angry, we’re ‘hysterical,’ ‘irrational,’ or ‘just being crazy.’ ” Then in a New Yorker interview published last Sunday, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — describing how she has become Public Enemy No. 1 for the right — cited the “ravenous hysteria” that seems to follow every public statement she makes.
Where men are “impassioned,” “enthusiastic” or “excited,” women are branded “hysterical.”
How many recaps of Roger Stone’s courthouse-steps rantings described him as “hysterical”? How about Congressman Mark Meadows’ breathless reaction to being told that using a black woman as a prop in Michael Cohen’s House committee hearing was a racist thing to do? Or Brett Kavanaugh’s crying during his Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court?
Think that, if Stone or Meadows or Kavanaugh were a woman, the word hysterical might be bandied about a bit?
The word’s etymology makes this gendering almost inevitable. It comes from the Greek hystera, meaning womb, and the Greeks’ belief that hysteria was unique to women and was caused by disturbances of the uterus. See also: hysterectomy.
Little surprise, then, that women are forced to endure this descriptor so much more often than men are. By implying that certain women have a “psychoneurosis,” anyone who accuses these women of being hysterical is leaning on those same tropes that have subjugated women for centuries. The word both dismisses and oppresses.
So when Ocasio-Cortez describes the hysteria of those who hate her, she is reclaiming the word and applying it to those who might otherwise use it as a weapon. When applied to her critics, this hysterical label would probably make them angrier, and more hysterical, than their revulsion at the Green New Deal or democratic socialism or Medicare for All or even rooftop dancing.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty hilarious.