A few change-ups at the Madhouse this week: Today is Tuesday, but it’s also Word Wednesday; tomorrow will be Wednesday too, but it will be dedicated to a book review. I’ve been asked to review a new book by J.J. Keeler entitled I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands: The Other Side of OCD. I am very flattered and can’t wait to share with you Keeler’s story of her life with OCD.
But for today here’s Word Wednesday, on Tuesday.
We have some new inhabitants at the Madhouse; two 5-day-old “orphaned” kittens. They are so cute!! Their little ears are pressed against their tiny heads and their wee eyes are still closed. I’ve done a census of the Madhouse population and here are the results:
2 adults; me and my mom
2 kids; Alexi and Rian
1 dog; Jake
1 adult cat; Mittie
1 kitten; Cliff, now 9-weeks-old and increasingly mischievous
2 newborn kittens; Tumbleweed & Munchkin
Total Population: 9
We’ve had the kittens for 24 hours now and I’ve been asked, “Are you crazy?” a few times, but also, “Have you gone mad?”
Mmmmm, mad. An oldie but a goodie. Today’s Word Wednesday is mad; the mental health sense of mad rather than temper-tantrum mad.
late 13century, from Old English gemædde (pl.) “out of one’s mind” (usually implying also violent excitement), also “foolish, extremely stupid,” earlier gemæded “rendered insane,”
Emerged in Middle English to replace the more usual Old English word, wod (see wood (adjective)). Sense of “beside oneself with excitement or enthusiasm” is from early 14century. Meaning “beside oneself with anger” is attested from early 14century, but deplored by Rev. John Witherspoon (1781) as an Americanism. It now competes in American English with angry for this sense. Of animals, “affected with rabies,” from late 13century. Phrase “mad as a March hare” is attested from 1520s, via notion of breeding season; “mad as a hatter” is from 1829 as “demented,” 1837 as “enraged,” according to a modern theory supposedly from erratic behavior caused by prolonged exposure to poison mercuric nitrate, used in making felt hats.
Interesting, but one more expression comes to mind, especially after last week’s find of the mentally ill My Little Pony – barking mad. I had to find some alternate sources for this one.
From The Phrase Finder:
There are a couple of stories which link ‘barking mad’ with the east London suburb of Barking. One is that the phrase owes its origin to a medieval asylum for the insane which was part of Barking Abbey. The second story isn’t a suggested origin, just a neat 1980s joke at the expense of Margaret Thatcher. She was known by those who disliked her as ‘Daggers’ Thatcher – not from a reputation for stabbing colleagues in the back, but because she was said to be ‘three stops past Barking’ [Dagenham is three stations beyond Barking on the London Underground].
The problem with the asylum tale is the date – it is far too early. ‘Barking mad’ isn’t mediaeval and began to appear in the language only around the beginning of the 20th century.
The first record of it that I can find in print is from the USA. The 11th November 1927 edition of the Oklahoma newspaper The Ada Evening News reported on the frenetic and, if contemporary photographs are to be believed, borderline insane sport of Auto-polo:
“At 2:30 this afternoon at Park field a half dozen barking mad auto polo cars will be whirled into action.”
That usage suggests a readership already familiar with the phrase, and the playing of polo in cars, while having a strong claim to epitomise madness, isn’t the likely source.
A much more prosaic derivation, that the phrase refers to mad and possibly rabid dogs, is a more probable source. There are many examples of ‘barking like a mad dog’ in print; for example, this from records of the trial for murder of a Walter Tricker, in 1867:
Mrs Hitchins, at the Inquest, says ‘It was not ordinary barking. They [the dogs] were barking like tearing mad.’
From World Wide Words:
And the name of the East London suburb is a seductive choice for the origins of this slang term. Peter Ackroyd, in his recent book London: A Biography goes so far as to suggest that monks in medieval times had a lunatic asylum there, which gave rise to the term. The problem with Mr Ackroyd’s idea is that the evidence strongly suggests the term is nothing like so old as that.
The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains not a single reference tobarking mad and I can’t find an example in my electronic database of more than 4,000 works of literature. Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, dates it to about 1965.
Nicholas Shearing of the OED kindly hunted through their database of citations and found that their earliest reference is actually from as far back as 1933, from Mr Jiggins of Jigginstown by Christine Pakenham (Countess Longford): “But he was mad! Barking mad!”. By the 1960s, barking was being used alone. Subscriber Anne Hegerty found this in a Nancy Mitford story, Don’t Tell Alfred, of 1960: “If Dr Jore comes here every day like he says he’s going to he will drive me mad. Really, properly barking”.
All these pointers add up to a strong presumption that barking mad is a bit of relatively modern British slang. The idea behind the saying is most likely that the person referred to is so deranged that he or she barks like a dog, or resembles a mad dog, or one that howls at the full moon.
Huh, who knew? (Apparently these folks did and now so do we.) I wonder, on a more serious note, if the term was initially used to describe someone who suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome. Tourette’s Syndrome is characterized by physical tics (head tossing, nodding, biting one’s own lip, etc.) and vocal tics, such as barking, yelling obscenities, repeating one’s own words, etc. Individuals with Tourette’s can learn to control the tics with work and patience.
As I’ve been doing for the past few Word Wednesdays I Googled “barking mad” for images. Most were related to canine adoption and health care, but I did come across this one that ties in nicely with my reference to last week’s Word Wednesday.