Some words have their roots in other languages, but others have their roots in a good story that captured the public imagination. The history of “mesmerize,” my language-curious friends, is a case of the latter.
Let me set the stage:
Imagine eighteenth-century Vienna— its grand gardens and palaces, the elegance, grace, and symmetry of Mozart and Beethoven, and the imperial menagerie that would become today’s oldest continually operating zoo in the world. This Vienna was one of the most important political, artistic, and commercial capitals of the era.
In this setting, enter Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, a physician who proposed a theory of how human and animal bodies react to the gravitational pull of the planets. “Animal gravitation,” he called it. And as his research continued, moving more and more into the laws of earth’s magnetic forces, this theory shifted to “animal magnetism.” With his work in this area, Dr. Mesmer based his medical practice on the idea that imbalances of fluids inside people’s bodies could be cured by the manipulation of magnets outside of their bodies.
Intriguing? Absolutely. At least that’s how many in eighteenth-century Vienna reacted, and Dr. Mesmer did quite well for himself using magnets and bringing his patients into an almost trance-like state during their treatments.
Over time, though, Dr. Mesmer was declared a fraud and decreed as a fake scientist. He was forced to leave Vienna, moved to Paris, and then was quickly under suspicion there as well.
But Dr. Mesmer’s work? It had been “mesmerizing,” as in it had held attention with captivation. It was transfixing, almost hypnotic, spellbinding, and captivating. This is the origin and history of “mesmerize,” a Venetian doctor with big ideas who may or may not have been manipulating the people around him. The story isn’t #fakenews, but the doctor’s theories might just have been.