We often use the word “gall” in phrases such as “I can’t believe she has the gall to…” or “that really galls me.” But what exactly does “gall” mean?
In its first sense, gall is a synonym for “bile.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, these days “gall” applies only to animals. Either way, gall (or bile) is a bitter-tasting, yellowish substance that aids in the digestion of fat. Because of its taste, gall can also be used to refer to anything that is bitter or severe.
The word gall comes from Old English gealla (meaning bile), a cognate of Greek kholē. It may also come from Old English geolo (yellow), a possible reference to bile’s color. The two roots may, in fact, be related.
Until the 17th century, when it was established that blood circulates, the word “bile” was used in conjunction with the humoral theory of medicine. Under that theory — developed in the 4th or 5th century BCE by the Greek physician Hippocrates — it was believed that disease resulted from an excess or deficiency of any of four bodily fluids or humors. The four humors were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.
Each humor had a corresponding personality. People with a predominance of haima (blood) were said to be sanguine, i.e., cheerful and confident. Those with an excess of phlegm were phlegmatic, meaning calm or not easily excited.
Yellow bile corresponded to the choleric personality. The word “choleric” is still a synonym for “bilious,” both of which refer to someone easily angered. Those with too much black bile, on the other hand, were said to be melancholic, a word made from Greek melas (black) + kholē (bile). So melancholy literally means black bile.
Most people had some combination of the four humors, giving each individual his or her particular temperament. The word “temperament” itself comes from Latin temperare (to mix or mingle).
A related meaning of “gall” is “bold, impudent behavior.” This is the gall we are using when we speak of someone’s “unmitigated gall.” The use of the word in this sense is first recorded in late 19th century American English. But a document from 1200 concerning the humoral theory of medicine establishes that the word was already being used to mean “embittered spirit or rancor.”
Another meaning of “gall” is that of something vexing or irritating. In its original sense, this use of gall referred to a sore on the skin – especially of a horse – caused by rubbing, chafing or flaying. It is this use we are referring to when we say that something “galls” us. This use of “gall” comes from Old English gealla, meaning “painful swelling.” Etymologists are unclear, however, whether this is the same gealla that gave us gall’s first meaning.
One famous person associated with the word “gall” was the Hunkpapa Lakota warrior known as Chief Gall. Gall rose to prominence during Red Cloud’s campaigns against the United States, and eventually became Sitting Bull’s military chief. He is best known for fighting alongside Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Gall — Phizí in his native Hunkpapa — was said to have earned his unusual nickname when, as a hungry orphan, he ate the gall bladder of an animal a neighbor had killed.
Given its bitter taste, eating gall must have taken quite some, er… gall.