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hysterical :  affected by or deriving from wildly uncontrolled emotion, Janet became hysterical and began screaming.

Why is the adjective hysterical usually applied to women and rarely to men?

For what it's worth, Google Books shows 42,700 hits for hysterical woman and 2,820 hits for hysterical man, but the fact is I rarely hear hysterical used in reference to men.

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It's not unheard of. In the movie Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour is ranting, and Audrey slaps his face and says "You were hysterical." –  Ross Presser Sep 27 '13 at 20:35
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I rarely hear it used at all, other than as "that was really really funny" (that was hysterical). –  Warren P Sep 27 '13 at 20:46
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It is interesting to note that the word "hysteresis" has nothing to do with the various "uterus words" like "hysterectomy" and "hysterical". It is derived from a different Greek root. –  Kaz Sep 28 '13 at 3:32
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Why does vagina applies mostly to women? This is unfair and politically incorrect in our antipoligamy age. –  Val Sep 28 '13 at 6:19
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@Val: Purely my own opinion, but I rather suspect that in total, "You stupid c*nt!" has been said by and to men more often than by or to women. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '13 at 19:03
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3 Answers

Because men can't have hysterectomies. The words "hysterical" and "hysterectomy" share the same root in the word for "uterus". In Victorian times, the root of female issues was theorized to be a non-existent medical condition some physicians called "wandering womb". This now-debunked belief is widely regarded as a form of medical quackery, but on the upside, it led to the invention of the vibrator, which was regarded as a cure for hysteria, especially when wielded by the skilled hands of an expert physician. Because those skilled hands got mighty tired after a half-day of administering treatments to patients, and they needed a break.

Yes, this really happened.

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Linda, I would suggest this answer is good as far as it goes. For clarity (and I'm especially thinking of those who might not see the irony embedded in your answer), I might suggest that you expand it. Yes, I mean into the what should be obvious but might not be to some area of, "but as of course we all know, that theory is hogwash, yet the traces of its influence remain in the preferential usage... etc. etc...." I think you see what I'm getting at. :) –  John M. Landsberg Sep 27 '13 at 15:26
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@JohnM.Landsberg "but as of course we all know, that theory is hogwash,..." Wikipedia in the link posted by LindaBrammer says as much. If there is anyone on ELU who really believes it is a medical condition, Linda's editing will not dissuade them (unfortunately). –  Mari-Lou A Sep 27 '13 at 17:36
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@Mari-LouA Here's how I see it: Lots of our ELL friends might not have the linguistic skills to see past the surface, and could easily misinterpret. Nor will most readers go to the link. And I do believe that people who are merely uninformed or confused can be properly guided in their thinking. You're referring to unrecoverable Neanderthals whose biased attitudes are not amenable to adjustment, and you're right, there are far too many of them, but I never give up trying!! –  John M. Landsberg Sep 27 '13 at 19:11
    
I am really unsure what to do now. But I'll edit my answer to make it very clear that there are some ugly historical truths behind this word, and for those reasons, I never actually use it in my spoken English. I find it kind of offensive because of its quack-science connection to the uterus. –  LindaBrammer Sep 27 '13 at 20:44
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I know medical science was comparatively primitive back then, but I think it's a bit misleading to suggest any significant number of Victorian physicians still believed in the ancient Greeks' ideas about "wandering wombs". Just as not many Victorian chemists would have still believed everything was made of various combinations of earth, air, wind, and fire. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '13 at 21:56
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As pointed out by @Linda, etymologically speaking, hysteria is a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. But very few people think of the word that way when they use it today.

I think OP massively overstates the case regarding how rarely the word hysterical is applied to men. It just so happens "hysterical woman" is a [cliched, sexist] stereotype. With he/she was hysterical, or he's/she's hysterical, for example, the "skew" is closer to 2:1 than OP's 15:1.


Note that by far most common usage in recent decades is the even more figurative informal hysterical = extremely funny...

He was hysterical (about 26,100 results in Google Books)
She was hysterical (99,300)
It was hysterical (280,000)

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+1 because I automatically assumed that a hysterical female is a woman having hysterics, which just goes to show how ingrained that stereotype is in our culture. It's been said that women cannot be funny, might be worthwhile investigating how many "hysterical women" are in actual fact comediennes... –  Mari-Lou A Sep 27 '13 at 16:27
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I'm not so sure that the expression "she/he was hysterical" is not synonymous with "she/he threw a tantrum". I can imagine a frustrated parent describing their child as such, and I've read stories where men complain of having hysterical wives or girlfriends :). –  Mari-Lou A Sep 27 '13 at 16:46
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@horatio: There are 19 instances of "John was hysterical", and 12 of "Jane was hysterical" in Google Books. On a quick glance through, I'd say less than half-a-dozen are in the "funny" sense. You'll note that I'm consistently backing up what I say with "evidence" of a sort, even if we both accept Google Books isn't always reliable. You offer nothing except your (possibly, highly localised) opinion. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '13 at 17:30
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@horatio: There's a limit to how much "original research" I'm prepared to put into this! You can agree or disagree, but I maintain that John is a hysterical guy isn't particularly common compared to, say, John is a very funny guy. You're more likely to hear the "funny" sense in constructions like John was hysterical last night (describing John on a specific occasion). It's not common to describe someone's ongoing, consistent characteristic as "hysterical", only some particular thing they did. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '13 at 18:40
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@FumbleFingers I am 24 and a native English speaker. I partly agree with you; 'hysterical' when used with a meaning of 'funny' is often used to describe an occasion. However, my first thought when I hear 'she was hysterical' (so non occasion usage) is that she was 'out of control', 'in a panic', or some other sense of the word in that direction. I think this has to do with how it's used in popular movies. Since most references, that I can think of, to that word in movies relate to the 'crazy woman' connotation. –  ryan Sep 27 '13 at 20:13
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As an addendum to the "hysterical meaning funny" discussion:

The best practical definition of hysteria is "someone that lets fear/any other strong emotion break out-of-control, and then starts to look for a cause". The "looks for a cause" part means autosuggestion. An example is that people react irrationally and out of proportions: cry, laugh, etc.

I believe that's the origin of its usage to mean funny, e.g. "John was hysterical last night". The exaggerated actions of John certainly caused people around him to react by laughing/smiling. There are many movies that make jokes over hysteria (Airplane! comes to my mind) exploiting those irrational and exaggerated reactions.

In some cases, hysteria can lead to a "conversion disorder" which is also called "conversion hysteria", and is essentially when a person develops physical symptoms based on psychological effects.

As to why it is used mostly in reference to women, see FumbleFingers' or LindaBrammer's answers.

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