The man behind the word ‘mesmerizing’

There are many words in English that we can use to say that something looks attractive: from ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ to strong adjectives such as ‘stunning’, ‘fascinating’ or ‘captivating’. In this post we’ll look at the interesting background of another one of those, namely ‘mesmerizing’. Firstly, what exactly does this adjective mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘mesmerizing’ /mez.mə.raɪ.zɪŋ/ as ‘very attractive, in a mysterious way, making you want to keep looking’. The Collins Dictionary entry adds that ‘if you are mesmerized by something, you are so interested in it or so attracted to it that you cannot think about anything else.’ As you can see, it has a very specific meaning, with the added connotation of something almost magical and hypnotic.

Looking at the origin of this word will help explain its curious meaning. The verb ‘to mesmerize’ goes back to the German surname Mesmer; more specifically, to Franz Mesmer, an 18th century doctor from what is today Germany. At the very beginning of his medical career, he was intensely interested in astronomy and the purported influence of celestial bodies on human health. Such ideas were quite mainstream at the time and many notable scientists conducted research and wrote treatises on the subject, including the famous physicist Isaac Newton.

Franz Anton Mesmer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

What made Mesmer’s work original, though, was the theory he proposed on the existence of an invisible life force that is in all living beings – not only humans, but also plants and animals. He named this natural force animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism. This theory quickly evolved into an alternative therapeutic practice, very popular well into the 19th century : a mesmerist (also known as a magnetizer) would use special techniques to produce a healing effect, manipulating the movement of the life force, imagined as a vital fluid, optimizing its flow and removing any congestion thought to lie at the root of a disease. The method consisted of touching and laying on of hands, intense gazing and other trance-inducing techniques resembling hypnosis.

Mesmerist practice. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While many swore by its beneficial effects, others denounced mesmerism as pseudoscience and nothing more than trickery. Either way, it captured the imagination of many and was a prominent feature of the culture of romanticism (the late 18th to the late 19th century). References to it can be found in many literary works of the period, either in passing or using mesmerism as a focal point in a narrative. As an example of the latter, you can read Edgard Allan Poe’s short story ‘Mesmeric Revelation‘ which contains a detailed description of a mesmerist session.

Although Franz Mesmer is by now an almost forgotten figure, traces of his theory and practice can still be seen in a number of modern-day alternative healing techniques. And, as we’ve seen, mesmerism has left a lasting trace in the English language, where we still use the verb to mesmerize, and the corresponding adjectives mesmerizing and mesmerized.

P.S. To find out more about Franz Mesmer and his legacy, have a look at the curated collection of articles dedicated to him at the Grammaticus Pinterest board.

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