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I found, a while ago, a small pocket dictionary published in 1921. There were several interesting words I found, but the word "hectic" caught my attention. I cannot remember the precise wording, but their definition essentially said it meant "slow; measured pace". Whatever it was, I remember it being pretty much a perfect antonym for its present meaning!

How did the meaning of "hectic" become precisely the opposite of its meaning 100 years ago?

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  • 1
    Possibly related.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 1:45
  • 2
    etymonline.com/word/hectic
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 2:25
  • 2
    Who says that the term hectic in its present-day meaning was not in use much earlier than 1920s? If you can tell us the name of the pocket dictionary, and if you are sure only one meaning was recorded we have a very interesting question for devotees of etymology!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 30, 2022 at 7:37
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    @Mari-LouA I can't tell you the name. I dimly remember it being a Collins dictionary, but the book itself is in a pile of books stashed on another continent! I do indeed remember there being only one meaning (the book is tiny, and many of the definitions were quite terse). Commented May 30, 2022 at 8:12
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    Hot Licks' link explains it all, but it seems nobody will bother to read it. It formerly referred to "slow, continued diseases", with later the feverish aspect taking precedence. Someone could write an answer, but is maybe reluctant because the question is at risk of being closed.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 16:03

2 Answers 2

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A review of editions of various Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series suggests that the very different meaning achieved critical mass (in MW;s estimation) sometime in the 1930s. Here is the entry for hectic in the Fourth Collegiate Dictionary (1931):

hectic, a. 1. Habitual; constitutional; pertaining esp. to slow waste of animal tissue, as in consumption. 2. In a hectic condition; having hectic fever; consumptive. hectic fever, Med., a type of fever occurring usually at an advanced stage of exhausting disease, as pulmonary tuberculosis. — hectic flush, Med., the peculiar flush of the countenance occurring in hectic fever.

"Hectic flush" may be the inspiration of Keats's line about autumn leaves that are "hectic red and pestilential yellow."

And here is the entry for hectic in the Fifth Collegiate Dictionary (1936):

hectic, a. 1. Pertaining esp. to slow waste of animal tissue, as in consumption. 2. In a hectic condition; having hectic fever. 3. Colloq. Filled with excitement; restless. —n. Med. a A hectic fever; also, a consumptive. b A hectic flush.

hectic fever. A type of fever occurring usually at an advanced stage of exhausting disease, and marked by a daily recurring rise in temperature, profuse perspiration, and flushed face (hectic flush).

The colloquial status of the "filled with excitement" meaning persists at least as late as Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960):

hectic adj. Confusing, busy, exciting. Colloq.

But Merriam Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary removes the "colloq." tag from this definition:

hectic adj 1 : of, relating to, or being fluctuating but persistent fever (as in tuberculosis) 2 : having a hectic fever 3 : FLUSHED, RED 4 : marked by feverish activity : RESTLESS

This is an interesting entry in several ways—including its introduction of "flushed, red" as a meaning (undoubtedly based on the no-longer-mentioned term "hectic flush") and the use of "feverish activity" to suggest something fast-paced—but perhaps the most significant innovation here is the omission of "slow waste" or indeed any suggestion of a slow or gradual pace of change.

The Eighth Collegiate Dictionary (1973) indicates that the era of hectic as "restless" was at an end:

hectic adj 1 : of, relating to, or being fluctuating but persistent fever (as in tuberculosis) 2 : having a hectic fever 3 : FLUSHED, RED 4 : filled with excitement or confusion {the hectic days before Christmas}

This (aside from a discreet change from "Christmas" to "the holidays") is the definition in the most recent dictionary in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series—the Eleventh Collegiate (2003).

Notice of the colloquial shift in usage goes back at least as far as Henry Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), which offers this discussion of the word:

hectic. For a h. moment. / M. Coué was taken up by some of our h. papers, & then dropped because he did not do what he never professed to do. / They have go pretty well used to the h. undulations of the mark. The sudden blossoming of h. into a VOGUE-WORD, meaning excited, rapturous, intense,impassioned, wild, uncontrolled, & the like, is very singular. The OED (1901) shows hardly a trace of it, & explains its one quotation of the kind ('vehement & h. feeling' (as an allusion to the h. flush—no doubt rightly. Now a h. flush is one that is accounted for not, like other flushes, by exceptional & temporary vigour or emotion, but by the habit of body called consumption, The nearest parallel to this queer development seems to be the use of CHRONIC for severe, the only difference being being that while that is confined to the entirely uneducated this has had the luck to capture the journalists.

I can't tell whether the revolutionary colloquialism originated in Great Britain and spread to North America, or vice versa, but it seems not at all unlikely that the mixing occasioned by World War I provided the conditions for its spread across both regions.

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  • These quotations confirm that there was a shift in meaning, but they only hint at an explanation of the shift. The answer is thus best regarded as a supplement (rather than an alternative) to the explanation that is explicitly given in @Barmar's answer: 'lay people are more likely to associate a disease with its visible symptoms than the biological mechanisms that underl[ie] it'.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 15:31
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According to Etymonline, it comes from the term "hectic fever", where "hectic" referred to the way the disease was acquired -- slowly, habitually (perhaps what we would call "chronic" these days).

However, the symptoms of this condition included a rapid pulse.

Hectic fevers are characterized by rapid pulse, flushed cheeks, hot skin, emaciation.

Lay people are more likely to associate a disease with its visible symptoms than the biological mechanisms that underly it. So when they heard "hectic", they didn't think of a disease that arises slowly over the course of a life, but one that causes a rapid heartbeat.

And over time this generalized to anything that contains lots of frantic activity.

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  • It could be that something like "a hectic day" would be a normal working day that slowly became busier as it progressed.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 5:37
  • @Mari-LouA Anything is possible, but that doesn't sound likely to me, and nothing like that is suggested in the etymology.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 14:08

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