Wikipedia (correctly IMHO) defines hysteresis as

the dependence of the output of a system not only on its current input, but also on its history of past inputs. The dependence arises because the history affects the value of an internal state. To predict its future outputs, either its internal state or its history must be known.

But then gives the etymology as

derived from ὑστέρησις, an ancient Greek word meaning "deficiency" or "lagging behind". It was coined around 1890 by Sir James Alfred Ewing to describe the behaviour of magnetic materials.

The Online Etymology Dictionary agrees, giving

1805, from Greek hysteresis "a coming short, a deficiency."

But this doesn't jibe with the etymology of hysteria, hysterical, or hysterectomy, all of which are based on the Greek root meaning "uterus" or "womb". (See, for example:

So what gives? I can conceive of at least two theories: (1) someone was embarrassed about the existence of bodily functions and so made up a bogus definition for ὑστέρησις, or (2) the ancient Greeks were so misogynistic that "having a womb" became idiomatic for "deficient."

What is the real etymology of the word hysteresis?

  • Here's one attempt at folk etymology: a womb is a chamber, a vacancy, a hollow. Small leap from there to gap and from gap to deficiency (but to be very clear, I emphatically do not perceive a womb to be a deficiency!). – Dan Bron Feb 27 '15 at 19:55
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    Is ὑστέρησις equal to ὑστέρα? The first five characters are the same, but ησις is not the same as α. In English, "outlook" and "outlandish" share the first five characters, but are only mildly related in etymology ("out") but have nothing to do with each other. Could this be the same? – hunterhogan Feb 27 '15 at 19:55
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    I see no reason to suspect that it's anything other than the 1890 coinage. – Hot Licks Feb 27 '15 at 23:36

I think you're probably going to get folk etymologies for this one.

If you trace this back,

  • "hysteresis" <== Gr. "ὑστέρησις" <== Gr. "ὑστερέω" <== Gr. "ὕστερος".
  • "hysteria" <== L. "hystericus" <== Gr. "ὑστερικός" <== Gr. "ὑστέρα"

Gr. "ὕστερος" is the masculine form of Gr. "ὑστέρα", so they are practically the same word. I'm not terribly familiar with Greek, but Wiktionary indicates that the word can mean "latter", "next", "inferior".

One can try the following derivations on for size.

  • It refers to the womb because it is the source of the "next" or "latter" generation.
  • It refers to the womb because it identifies one of the "inferior" gender (as women were viewed in ancient Greece).
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    In anatomy, some words describe the relative positions of body parts. In modern English, "[your] posterior" is slang for "butt," for example, because the anatomical location of a person's butt is "posterior." As for ὑστέρα, if Organ X is closer to the feet than Organ Z, then Organ X is inferior to Organ Z. If we need to connect "womb" and "inferior," then it could simply be that the womb is inferior to ("below") the heart or head. – hunterhogan Feb 27 '15 at 20:38
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    @Hunter It's the opposite, actually: the original meaning was ‘upper’, not ‘lower’. It's related to the Sanskrit adverb ud ‘up’ (Greek having only comparative and superlative—just like English has only the positive up and comparative upper, but no superlative *uppest), and also the similar, though distinct, noun udáram ‘belly’. Apparently, the belly was somehow symbolically/notionally the ‘upper’ part of the body. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 27 '15 at 21:12
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: it's not really that simple. Hysteron meant 'behind' as opposed to 'in front' (as in hysteron proteron), but there is no real reason to associate that with 'lower', let alone 'inferior'. The actual question referring to 'past', I would be tempted to leave these extrapolations alone. – Tim Lymington Feb 28 '15 at 17:02

I don't think there is a conspiracy. The Oxford English Dictionary's etymology for "hysteresis" is much the same: "Greek ὑστέρησις a coming short, deficiency, < ὑστερεῖν to be behind, come late, etc., < ὕστερος late."

You can see that the idea of deficiency derived from the idea of lateness, not the idea of a womb. Liddell and Scott explain that ὕστερος means "latter", "last" and is cognate with Sanskrit words meaning "up", "higher", "highest", "latest". ( http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=u(/steros)

ὑστέρα 'womb' or 'ovary of animals' seems to be related, though. Liddell and Scott explain it as follows: "Lit. the upper or protruding part... or perh. the back part". ( http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3Du(ste%2Fra )

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