PHLEGMATIC (fleg-MAT-ik): apathetic, sluggish, not known to exhibit excitement

Everybody isn’t “wired.”   While we are used to focusing on people who are multi-tasking, energized, alpha, there are fascinating people who are on the other end of the spectrum who are equally interesting.  They don’t garner as much attention as the caffeine-loaded types.  But that doesn’t mean that they are not worth watching.  In fact, it may be a quality in this high energy population.

Americans are often ready to ridicule the concept of siesta, or the practitioner of yoga.  They may be depicted as being too cerebral, and too slow to catch the golden ring.  But there is something to be said about the person who is patient, practiced, and deliberate.

The word phlegmatic is often applied to such a person, and … yes … it is a word which emerges from the meaning of phlegm, that gooey, sticky stuff that gathers in your respiratory system when you are under the weather.  It’s the stuff you check for color, knowing that if it is green it is probably a sign of infection.   Enough about that.  But it does give you a feeling for the negative meaning of phlegmatic.

Phlegmatic people are often cast in a negative light, as even in the definition in today’s title.   They are seen as sluggish.  Remember, that word is related to the slow-moving, colorless creature that appears in your lawn.  It is so fat and lacking in muscle that it barely moves.  To be sluggish is to be relegated to the realm of disposable and lacking in the qualities required for something of value.

But it is helpful to take note that the Mona Lisa, Mr. Rogers, and Charles Darwin have been described as sluggish.   Their calm, unrattled persona has been derided and characterized as unappealing by some.   That’s not really a fair characterization, however.  Their appeal is overwhelming and unimpressed by those who would prefer them to be more energetic.  Their successes are not dependent upon the energy displayed, but by the depth of their integrity and the appeal of their accomplishments.

Phlegmatic is not only a word applied to people and personality types.  It can be used as a word to describe a piece of music that labors and never really does anything to garner enthusiasm.   A phlegmatic book may be sleep-inducing, and an article in a newspaper which is phlegmatic is uninforming and lacks the ability to capture attention.  A  phlegmatic lecture or speech fails to gain any converts, and a phlegmatic sermon may be downright boring and lacking in inspiration.

One’s compilation of art may be phlegmatic, lacking in color or attractive theme.   A wardrobe of a person may lack creativity and design appeal.   A stand-up comedian’s routine may be phlegmatic and turn off an audience.   A politician’s record may be phlegmatic, lacking in accomplishments and significance.   A salesperson’s performance may be phlegmatic and lackluster and unable to show profit.  A house’s exterior, lacking in creative landscaping and architectural design may be said to be phlegmatic.

I think you get the point.  Like that (usually) colorless mass that one expectorates, a phlegmatic appearance, performance, or product may not be worth noting.   It makes for an interesting word, however, which deserves a place in one’s lexicon.

Photo Credit: orbitfm

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  1. Sorry, Picky, but I find it hard to calculate the process of finding phlegmatic type to be a compliment. I think the damp weather affects more than the sinuses!

  2. In Britain, of course, we regard the word as complimentary. Stiff-upper-lipped British sahibs are phlegmatic. Or perhaps it’s just that the damp weather gets into our sinuses.

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