There's a premium on my humors

The u is disappearing all over Africa, and maybe the Gates Foundation is to blame. (Reuters)

The u is disappearing all over Africa, and maybe the Gates Foundation is to blame. (Reuters)


My recent column on odd naming conventions went viral. Not Ebola or Zika kind of viral, or even Jo’burg winter flu kind of viral – more like asymptomatic herpes viral. It lurks quietly, waiting for its moment, deep down in some hepatic netherworld …

But that’s enough of the metaphors.
My medical aid doesn’t cover metaphors. In fact, I’m in a payment gap as far as similes are concerned, too. And, when I checked the small print, I found that it won’t shell out for any figures of speech not mentioned in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

My life insurance policy, at least, is more straightforward, based as it is on what is still known in Rosicrucian circles as “humorism” – and we’re not talking about Trevor Noah or Kagiso Lediga here. Humorism is also known as “humoralism”, though the absence of the “u” in “humour” makes me wonder whether it hasn’t been colonised by the American imperialists (or should that be “colonized”?)

Certainly the Gates Foundation, leader of American aid-imperialism across the world, has caused the loss of several instances of the letter “u” all over Africa. And that’s in places where literacy is relatively high. The country just west of Kenya is likely to be renamed Ganda as soon as President Yoweri Museveni signs on the dotted line.

Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, will be spared the disappearance of the “u”, because its use comes from the French transliteration of something that sounds like Wuggadoogoo – and thank heavens for that! Without the French spelling, you might mistake the place for somewhere in the Australian Outback.

The “u” tradition is so strong in Francophonia, even in Outer Francophonia, that the Gateses’ global muscle can’t initiate a vowel shift. It remains to be seen what happens in South Africa, where much of our Sotho-Tswana language group is transliterated à la française, thanks to French-speaking missionaries who got to parts of the hinterland ahead of their competitors from Britain and Germany.

Hence we have the spelling “Moshoeshoe” for the famed leader of the Basotho people, but “Moshweshwe” if your ancestral area fell outside the remit of the French preachers and compilers of dictionaries.

Back, however, to the humors or humours – key evaluation tools of the insurance industry since Hippocrates in the fourth century BC. The four humours are the bodily fluids that circulate through human bodies and, depending on which is dominant, will code your personality as sanguine (blood dominates), choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile) or phlegmatic (phlegm, obviously).

I’ve had so much phlegm this winter that I have been reclassified by my life insurer. I’m no longer so choleric or melancholic. I’m hoping I might one day be able to make the transition to sanguine, which would increase my life expectancy by at least 10 years.

Oh dear. My premiums just went up too.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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