How did Colin Powell insult the French foreign minister?

How did Colin Powell insult the French foreign minister?

How did Colin Powell insult the French foreign minister?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 19 2002 6:16 PM

How Did Colin Powell Insult the French Foreign Minister?

In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine as "getting the vapours" over President Bush's State of the Union address. (Vedrine had called the U.S. war on terrorism "simplistic.") What are "the vapors," and how do they compare with other ailments we tend to associate with the heroines of gloomy gothic novels?


Beginning in the 15th century, doctors thought gases from your stomach, called "vapors," could waft up to your brain, causing headaches and ill health. By the 18th century, these vapors had become "the vapors" and referred to a more general class of disorders that could include depression, hypochondria, nervousness, and excitability. Sometimes a person with the vapors had a lasting or chronic condition, but sometimes "getting the vapors" meant just having a brief headache or a fainting spell to be cured with smelling salts.

"The vapors" were often, though not necessarily, a female ailment. Powell diagnosed the French foreign minister with a condition more common among the ladies than the men in 18th-century Paris' fashionable salons. So, aren't "the vapors" just like the 19th-century ailment that doctors called "hysteria"? Don't both involve women feeling weak, fainting, having fits, and generally being excitable?

Yes. In the 18th century, people called these nervous disorders "the vapors." In the 19th century, they called them "hysteria." But the roots of the terms are different. "The vapors" came from doctors being concerned about internal gases. Hysteria, on the other hand, was thought to be caused by disturbances of the uterus. Like "hysterectomy," "hysteria" comes from the Greek word for womb. Hysterics, then, were always women; it was a specifically female diagnosis. "Getting the vapors" was more commonly associated with women, but the medical explanation behind it was, at least theoretically, gender-blind.

Feminist literary critics and historians of science have offered many theories about what was really wrong with women who were diagnosed as "hysterical." Some are pretty mundane—for example, corsets made women faint—and some are more complex. Women who were denied careers or opportunities for self-fulfillment could become depressed and be diagnosed as hysterics. A woman psychiatrist noticed that the symptoms of hysterical women in the 19th century were similar to those of shell-shocked soldiers in World War I and proposed that hysteria might be what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, in this case stemming from sexual abuse.

Bonus Explainer: What about all those other maladies people suffer from in gothic novels and old poetry? What about melancholy? Again, pretty similar: Most often it meant sadness or depression, though it could also mean anger or sullenness. (Unlike hysterics, melancholics were often men.) It comes with its own medical explanation, drawn from the ancient and medieval idea of the four humors, which were blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Illnesses and personality defects were the results of an excess or a lack of one of the humors; melancholy was caused by having too much black bile. What about consumption—all those young girls coughing so romantically? Easy: That was tuberculosis, the great urban killer of the 19th century. One of the culprits for its spread was the commonness of public spitting. Click here for an Explainer on consumption and Moulin Rouge.

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Explainer thanks Stephen Greenberg at the National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division.

Kate Taylor is the arts reporter at the New York Sun and the editor of an anthology of essays about anorexia, Going Hungry, which will be published next spring.