Yesterday, I asked a question over at the Gaming StackExchange, and eventually received an answer whose primary thrust was this wonderfully written passage from Moby Dick:

"Moby Dick" passage regarding hypos

My questions are: What does hypos mean in this context? What was the historical usage of this word — has it died out? How does its meaning here relate to what I presume is its Greek root ὑπό (hypo-)?

  • 1
    "hypos" are a common abbreviation of hypoglycaemia, a common feeling for people suffering of diabetes. Symptoms: - Feeling wobbly or confused, - Having tingly lips and blurred eyesight. Apr 29, 2011 at 11:27
  • 1
    @AlainPannetierΦ As far as I am aware "hypo" for "hypoglycaemia" or "hypoglycaemic attack" refers to such attacks resulting from diabetic medicine, in particular treatment with insulin and insufficient food intake. The first treatment with insulin was in 1922, Moby Dick was published in 1851.
    – BoldBen
    Feb 23 at 0:56

3 Answers 3


There are different meanings, plus hypo and hypo- are two different things. (If you want I'll be more specific here, but I avoided it because it wasn't what you asked.)

But the meaning you need is: "Morbid depression of spirits." (Taken from the OED.)

It's the only one that fits in that context, if you read again the passage, it will be much more understandable now.

EDIT: I forgot to mention. This meaning I gave to you is signalled as Obsolete and it says it's an "Abbreviation of hypochondria".


Following up on Alenanno's accurate answer, I note the following entry for "hyps (or hypo)" in J. S. Farmer & W. E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, volume 3 (1893):

HYPS (or HYPO), subs. (old.).—The BLUE DEVILS [elsewhere defined as "Dejection; lowness of spirits; hypochondria"]. [Citations:] 1710. Swift, Tatler, No, 230. Will Hazard has got the HIPPS, having lost to the tune of five hund'rd pound. [Second citation:] 1729. Swift, Poems (Chalmers, English Poets, 1810, xi., 486). And the doctor was plaguily DOWN IN THE HIPS. 1738. Swift's Polite Conversation, Dial. 1. Her ladyship was plaguily bamb'd. I warrant it put her into the HIPPS. 1811. Lexicon Balatronicum, s.v. 1830. C. Lamb, Pawnbroker's Daughter, i., 2. The drops so like to tears did drip, They gave my infant nerves the HYP. 1854. Haliburton, Americans at Home, i., 176. The old man would give up to the HYPO, and keep his bed for weeks. During this time, he wouldn't say a word, but 'I'm not long for this world.'

The citation from 1811 is to Frances Grose & a Member of the Whip Club, Lexicon Balatronicum: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pick-Pocket Eloquence (1811), which contains this entry:

HYP. The hypochondriac ; low spirits. He is hypped ; he has got the blue devils, &c.

The earliest example by Swift of the three that Farmer & Henley cites may indeed have appeared very soon after the slang term emerged, since it comes in the context of a letter chock-a-block with abbreviated words and other bits of slang that Swift was mocking (and evidently detested). For context, here is a bit more from The Tatler No. 230 (September 28, 1710), presented as a letter to Isaac Bickerstaff {Swift] from a gentleman of some refinement who is passing along a note that he supposedly had recently received from someone acquainted with the very latest slang:

These two Evils, Ignorance, and want of Taste, have produced a third ; I mean the continual Corruption of our English Tongue, which, without some timely Remedy, will suffer more by the false Refinements of twenty Years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred. ...

But instead of giving you a List of the late Refinements crept into our Language, I here send you the Copy of a Letter I received some Time ago from a most accomplished Person in this Way of Writing ; upon which I shall make some Remarks. It is in these Terms:

Sir, I cou'd n't get the Things you sent for all about Town——I thôt to ha come down my self, and then I'd brôt 'um ; but I ha'nt don't, and I believe I can't do't that's PozzTom begins to g'imself Airs, because he's going with the Plenipo's——'Tis said the French King will bamboozl' us agen, which causes many Speculations. The Jacks and others of that Kidney are very uppish, and alert upon't, as you may see by their Phizz's———Will Hazard has got the Hipps, having lost to the Tune of five hundr'd Pound, thô he understands Play very well, no Body better. He has promis't me upon Rep, to leave off Play, but you know 'tis a weakness he's too apt to give into, thô he has as much Wit as any man, no body more. He has lain incog ever since——

The author of the letter to Bickerstaff goes on to identify and condemn the source of short forms such as "Hipps":

And this ["natural Tendency toward Barbarity, which delights in Monosyllables"] is still more visible in the next Refinement, which consists in pronouncing the first Syllable in a Word that has many, and dismissing the rest, such as Phizz, Hipps, Mobb, Pozz, Rep, and many more, when we are already overloaded with Monosyllables, which are the Disgrace of our Language.

The use of Hipps for hypochondria thus seems to have been new enough in 1710 to strike readers as outlandish, just as Phizz, Pozz, Plenipo, and incog would have done.

The earliest instance I could find of the spelling hypos for the short form of hypochondria is from "A Cure for the Hyp," in The London Magazine (November 1732):

Mr. Spectator says, The old Distemper, called Melancholy, was happily exchanged for the Vapours, and afterwards for the Hyp, till at last it took up the now current Appellation of the Spleen ; tho' a learned Doctor of the West has written a Tract, in which he divides the Spleen and Vapours, not only into the Hyp, the Hypos, and the Hypocons, but subdivides these Divisions into the Mark-ambles, the Moon-palls, the Strong-Fives, and the Hockogrokles. I am almost sure I am right, thio' I have mislaid the Book among my Romances.


There seems to be no disagreement among knowledgeable sources that hypo and hypos (and hyp and hyps and hipps) arose as slang short forms of hypochondria and/or hypochondriac. The slang shortening was in use by 1710, but perhaps not much earlier than that. The particular spelling hypos was in use (although by no mean to the exclusion of other spellings) by 1732.

Update (February 21, 2023): What did hypochondria mean in 1851?

With regard to the precise meaning of hypochondria and hypochondriac in 1851 (when Melville published Moby-Dick; or The Whale), I note these entries for the two terms in Merriam-Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847):

HYPOCHONDRES, HYPOCHONDRY, HYPOCHONDRIA. n. 1. In anatomy, the sides of the belly under the cartilages of the spurious ribs ; the spaces on each side of the epigastric region. 2. Hypochondriac complaints, being a combination of melancholia and dyspepsia, consisting in gloomy ideas of life, dejected spirits, and indisposition to activity. The true name of this disease is HYPOCHONDRIASIS.

HYPOCHONDRIAC, a. [1.] Pertaining to the hypochondria, or the parts of the body so called ; as, hypochondriac region. 2. Affected by disease, attended with debility, depression of spirits, or melancholy. 3. Producing melancholy, or low spirits.

HYPOCHONDRIAC, n. A person affected with debility, depression of spirits, or melancholy.

It thus appears that the hypochondria Melville has in mind in using the word hypos could range across a multitude of meanings, from a serious disease or chronic condition that we might today call "clinical depression" to a temporary lowness of spirits that we might today call "the blues." In any event, the contemporaneous edition of Webster's Dictionary seems to consider that range of possible meanings legitimate.


I came to find the answer, and instead find myself writing one. The current meaning of "hypochondria" doesn't quite fit, so I searched about and found this:

In the 17th century, hypochondriac referred to people who suffered from “depression and melancholy without cause”. ... It wasn’t until the 19th century that hypochondriac described someone who suffered “illness without a specific cause.”

I'd guess from the Moby Dick context that the earlier definition is intended.

The rest of the dictionary.com entry is interesting, but not germane.

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