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The Independent Online

JOHN Major picked a good word when he said the media, the Opposition and the rest of Europe were suffering from collective hysteria about the beef crisis. Medicine defines hysteria as a series of symptoms - overdramatising things being one - which originate in the mind and whose cause is not instantly apparent, the cause in this case (Mr Major would claim) being merely a desire to discredit HM Government, or perhaps to raise the circulation of newspapers.

A classic instance, you might say, of "conversion hysteria" - formulated by the neurologist Jean Martin Charcot in the 1880s and made familiar by Freud, who said it was a mechanism to suppress something the patient was unconsciously ashamed of. I was once told by a dentist, much to my annoyance since I was perfectly calm at the time, that my toothache was hysterical; finding nothing wrong with the tooth, he probably thought I fancied his assistant and that this was my sub-conscious way of getting to see her. If he was right I got off lightly. Symptoms can include partial paralysis, temporary blindness, fits, vomiting, and generally carrying on.

The ancient world thought all mental states had a physical cause, and since women seemed to suffer from this sort of thing more than men it looked for a body part women had and men didn't. Must be the womb, or hystera as the Greeks called it. Charcot was delighted when he discovered a clear case of hysteria not in yet another French actress but in a German grenadier.

By his time hysteria, in common with other medical terms like chronic and morbid, had long been misappropriated by us laymen, and means any behaviour that is over the top, such as excessive laughter, which is why you see HYSTERICAL in large letters outside comedy theatres. Mr Major, on the other hand, isn't joking.

Nicholas Bagnall