phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Phrases, Sayings and Idioms Home > Discussion Forum

Re: Hippocrates

Posted by TheFallen on December 10, 2002

In Reply to: ...has a lot of gall... posted by Anne on December 10, 2002

: Does anyone know the origin of this phrase? I've heard used to mean something similar to "He has a lot of nerve."

: Thanks!

I may be totally wrong, but I think originates way back to the Greek concept of man being governed by four liquids or "humours" - closely related to the four elements of fire, earth, air and water - which needed to be kept in balance. This idea was first put forward by Hippocrates, and was very prevalent throughout mediaeval medicine/physiology.

These four humours were namely (and in the same fire/earth/air/water order) yellow bile (an excess of which made you choleric), black bile (melancholic), blood (sanguine) and phlegm (phlegmatic). Although we've moved on a tad in medical knowledge, we retain the four emotional adjectives to this day.

The word gall stems from the proto-root ghel-, meaning yellow, just like gold and gilt, and also cholera do. Gall is therefore yellow bile, a bitter liquid secreted within the liver's gall bladder, an excess of which was thought liable to make you choleric - bitter and angry. Figuratively, gall is most often used to mean something almost too bitter to tolerate.

The word has evolved though, and you're right in your assumption that someone who has a lot of gall is seen as having outrageous effrontery.