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Melancholia is an old and quite beautiful word which describes a depressed state. It was used as a noun in the same way that “depression” is currently used - and in the medical field was a diagnosis which described many of the symptoms which we see today in depressed persons such as:

  1. Low mood
  2. Anergia
  3. Anhedonia

As well as the secondary symptoms:

  1. Insomnia
  2. Amotivation
  3. Poor concentration
  4. Low appetite
  5. Low libido
  6. Guilt/feelings of worthlessness
  7. Low confidence
  8. Hopelessness
  9. Suicidal thoughts/act/gestures - self-harming behaviours

“Melancholia” came from the old (and mistaken) believe that depression was caused by a build up of dark bile in the body - and was first described by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece. “Melan” is an old word meaning “dark” or “black” and “cholia” is a word which we still use in medicine meaning “bile”.

Bile is a substance created in the gall bladder which is secreted into the duodenum of the small intestine and whose purpose it is to emulsify fat in the diet. There are a host of illnesses related to the liver and gall bladder which produce symptoms such as jaundice (yellowing of the skin and sclera of the eyes). However, bile from the gall bladder is not associated with Major Depressive Disorder.

I have been thinking about melancholia recently and have wondered what adverb is correct when describing an action that is carried out in a melancholic manner. Would it be more correct to say:

  • “Mist lay melancholically upon the grass”

Or

  • “Mist lay melancholily upon the grass”

I suppose this is also related to the difference (if there is a difference) between “melancholy” and “melancholic” as an adjective - and by extension “melancholy” and “melancholia” as a noun.

Are both correct but one is more old-fashioned than the other?

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    Have you got some real-world examples where melancholily is actually used? Nov 22 '21 at 10:53
  • When you say "describing an action" is 'Mist' a person's name? Nov 22 '21 at 10:56
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    Orwell wisely pointed out that acceptability in English is inextricably intertwined with avoiding the bizarre. How often is either of these words used in reasonable examples? Nov 22 '21 at 11:05
  • Wow, I was all prepared to say "Pshaw, melancholilolilolily? Cmon, that's not a word!" But I guess it is. Nov 22 '21 at 14:14
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    Well, Google Ngrams seems pretty clear that "melancholily" used to be more common that "melancholically," and that they then traded positions. So yes, melancholily would be "more old-fashioned," just as using melancholia instead of melancholy for the noun would be. Nov 22 '21 at 14:29

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