Treatise (or Treacle) on Insanity

Bethlem Royal Hospital,

aka Bedlam

With my thoracic surgery staring at me from the other side of the weekend, I decided that grabbing something from the past and emending it would be easier than writing something totally new.  So I did.  This is from May 25, 2008.

I am intensely interested in how words have come to mean what they do.  Since words are all I have to argue for my inclusion into human society, how could I not need to be interested in those long forgotten thought processes.

With help from the Online Etymological Dictionary and its many contributors, I do the research so you don’t have to.

Insanity – 1432, (referring to health of body, or rather lack thereof), deriving from Latin sanus (health)

Interesting question:

Why insane?  Why not unsane?  Nonsane?  Presane or postsane?


insane – 1560, mad, outrageous, excessive, extravagant

sanity – 1602

sane – 1721 (back-created from sanity, which was back-created from insanity.)

Louis Armstrong

When you wish upon a star

Makes no difference who you are

But when you wish upon a gum wrapper, it makes a whole lot of difference.  If you are not rich, you are going to be labeled something.  Even if you are rich, you may do.  See below.

Insane applied to actions dates from 1842.

Other languages:

verr├╝ckt – displaced [applied to the brain as to a clock that is ‘out of order’]

pazzo (originally a euphemism) from Latin patiens “suffering”

Cf. lunatic

The Beatles

fool – from L. follis “bellows, leather bag” (used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person” (see follicle)).

Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested 1370, though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll.

“Foolosopher,” a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus (In Praise of Folly, written to his friend Thomas More).  Erasmus just happens to be in my educational ancestry, so I thought that was cool.

One might benefit from noting that in some Tarot traditions The Fool is called Le Mat or Il Matto…the madman or the beggar.

In the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, The Fool wears ragged clothes and stockings without shoes, and carries a stick on his back. He has what appear to be feathers in his hair. His unruly beard and feathers may relate to the tradition of the woodwose or wild man.


frantic, meaning “affected by wild excitement” is circa 1477.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

madding (from the obsolete verb to mad) – rendering insane (a circular reference has been achieved.  That usually means the real definition is, “We know it when we see it.”)

mad – from demonstrative form of *ga-maid-az – changed (for the worse), abnormal.  See also mutable (i.e. same root).

pixilated – 1848, mildly insane, bewildered, tipsy.  A New England dialect word popularized in 1936 by the movie “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”

nincompoop – derivation unknown.  Dr. Johnson claimed it was derived from non compos mentis, but he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.  Well, being dead and all, he wouldn’t.

No wonder that Chauvelin’s spies had failed to detect, in the apparently brainless nincompoop, the man whose reckless daring and resourceful ingenuity had baffled the keenest French spies…

–Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

loony – Slang.  Loony bin – “insane asylum” is from 1919.  Looney left in ref. to holders of political views felt to be extreme is from 1977.

loco – from Arabic lauqa, fem. of ‘alwaq “fool, crazy person.”  Loco-weed (1879) was name given to species of western U.S. plants that cause cattle and horse diseases that make them stagger and act strangely.

giddy – O.E. gidig, variant of *gydig “insane, mad, stupid, possessed by a spirit.”  Now we’re in trouble.  Possession usually involves Church types, and that’s never good.

Meaning “having a confused, swimming sensation” is from 1570.

wood – violently insane (now obsolete) from O.E. wod from P.Gmc. *woth- from PIE *wat-, source of L. vates “seer, poet,” O.Ir. faith “poet” Cf. O.E. woþ “sound, melody, song,” and O.N. oðr “poetry,” and the god-name Odin.

Wood?  Really?  Gives “dumb as a post” added meaning.  Follow-up question:  Are poets by definition insane?  And who knew the Old Irish word for poet was “faith?”

craze – 1369, probably from O.N. *krasa “shatter,” metaphoric use for “break down in health” (1476) led to n. sense of “mental breakdown.”

Patsy Cline

Crazy is from 1576 as “sickly;” from 1617 as “insane;” and from 1927 in jazz slang for “cool, exciting.”

The phrase “crazy like a fox” is recorded from 1935.

Common sense is 14c., originally the power of uniting mentally the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses, thus “ordinary understanding, without which one is foolish or insane” (L. sensus communis, Gk. koine aisthesis); meaning “good sense” is from 1726

To lose (one’s) mind – “become insane” is attested from c.1500.

nuts (adj.) “crazy,” 1846, from earlier be nutts upon – “be very fond of” (1785)

to be off one’s nut – “be insane,” 1860

Nutty – “crazy” is first attested 1898

But “nuts” also came to be a reference to the Greek Foolosopher Testicles, so we have:

Please eliminate the expression ‘nuts to you’ from Egbert’s speech.

— Request from the Hays Office regarding the script of “The Bank Dick,” 1940

On the NBC network, it is forbidden to call any character a nut; you have to call him a screwball.

New Yorker,” Dec. 23, 1950

Out to lunch – “insane, stupid, clueless” student slang, first recorded 1955, on notion of being “not there.””

fanatic – 1525 from L. fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god.”  Originally, “pertaining to a temple,” from fanum – “temple.”  The noun is from 1650, originally in religious sense, of Nonconformists (Nonconformist is the name given to Protestants who are not members of the Church of England.  This included Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists, and members of the Salvation Army.  I told you there was Church trouble here.)

A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.

— Winston Churchill

I have been accused of being insane.  A lot.  I must be mentally fuckin’-ill to have done what I have done.  As much is made so forcefully apparent by folks like Focus on the Family, it saddens me greatly that there are a great number of people on “our side” who probably agree.  After all, as the saying goes

No sane man would have his genitals removed.

I ask people to direct their attention to the word “man.”  It is that word which is in error.  That is our point.

Was it sane to have to believe that I was a pervert because of the thoughts roiling in my head my whole life?  Was it sane to live my life solely so that other people could be comfortable?  Or wasn’t real sanity the realization that I am not a fool, that I am abnormal, that I am mutable, and that I could change (for the better).  Society benefits when people don’t spend their whole lives hiding.

I will finish with:

When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition until death do them part.

— George Bernard Shaw




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    • Robyn on January 1, 2011 at 00:01

    …with my last two essays, also resurrected from 2008:  Where ragged people go and Despondency.

    • RUKind on January 1, 2011 at 05:03

    neo-sane, n. – able to rapidly adapt to any and all versions of reality; ability to simultaneously resolve multiple realities and appear sane in all versions; capable of holding multi-threaded discussions with other neo-sane persons.

    etymology – first used in response by RUKind to essay on 2010 blog Docudharma on insanity by Robyn

    “If you’re not all there, you’re welcome over here.” , RUKind

    Happy New Year all.

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