Insanity is a relative concept. What’s meat (normalcy) for one is insanity (poison) for another. Language shows how fluid the boundaries of madness are in human consciousness. One can rise from the abyss or fall into it depending on the caprices of the speaking community. Especially characteristic is the history of the adjective mad. It is an old word in Germanic. Its cognates turned up in Gothic, a language recorded in the 4th century: the verb maidjan meant “adulterate” and the noun inmaideins was attested with the meaning “exchange.” Most likely, “change, exchange” was the earliest innocuous sense of maidjan. The reality of this reconstruction is borne out by the Latin cognate of maidjan, namely, mutare “change” (it had long u). Such borrowed Romance words as mutate, commute, mutual, and immutable, among many others, make the Latin verb easily recognizable. (Detailed proof of why Latin mut– with a long vowel and Gothic maid– are related would take us too far afield and should be taken on trust; such proof exists, and it is solid.)
The meaning of words regularly becomes either broader or narrower. Gothic maithms “present, gift” (the spelling has been Anglicized) is easy to understand: one good thing deserves another, someone who receives a present is expected to reciprocate it (this rule was law in the past); a clear link connects “gift” and “change ~ exchange.” But the connotations of maidjan “adulterate” were negative, though not as devastating as those of the adjective gamaiths “crippled” (ga– is a prefix). The Icelandic cognate of maidjan ~ mutare also meant “to cripple.” In the neighboring West Germanic languages, the focus was shifted from physical to mental aberrations: in German (at its earliest recorded period called Old High [High = southern] German), we find gameit “foolish; vain, boastful,” while Old Engl. gemad “insane” is the ancestor of mad; madmod, literally “mad-mood” or rather “disposition for madness” meant “folly.”
In English, mad remains a synonym of “insane,” but it has slightly ameliorated (improved) its meaning, for a person mad for entertainment is only over-enthusiastic, not really mad, and being mad at someone is a colloquial way of calling someone “angry.” Other than that, mad is mad. But in German the promised rise from the abyss occurred. In the 13th century and some time later, gameit, spelled gemeit, was no longer “foolish” and “vain” but “happy, joyous; satisfied; brave, saucy” and even “imposing, pleasant.” From “foolish” to “saucy,” from “saucy” to “ brave,” from “brave” to “satisfied” and “joyous; happy.” Perhaps the development went so, perhaps the zigzags were different, but some such events must have happened. Is it possible that a similar process will take place in English: from “angry” to “valiant, proud; lovable, beautiful”? No doubt, it is. Let us wait three or four hundred years and see. The funny thing is that Middle High German gemeit later disappeared and left no reflexes in the modern language.
The fortunes of crazy were different. Most English speakers know craze only as “derangement, fad” and crazy as “insane.” But people dealing with pottery are aware of the crazing of the glaze (from craze “crackle”). A crazy pavement and a crazy quilt are made up of irregularly shaped pieces fitted together. This usage reveals the most ancient meaning of craze and justifies the etymology from a Scandinavian verb glossed with some hesitation “break (up), crunch.” Craze “fad” and crazy “insane” are later, figurative meanings, though they are the only ones in common use. Those who study semantics often wonder whether any meaning can yield any other. Not quite, but crazy designs in the history of words are the rule rather than an exception. Although sounds also change, phonetic fluctuations are not so powerful: p will not turn into the vowel a, and k has no chance of becoming o (everybody around me now uses in speech and even in writing the verb morph, a pretentious upstart, a silly word for my taste; well, p and k will never morph into a and o). But in semantics the line between good and bad, dark and light, foolish and adoring, mad and beautiful is easily crossed, which teaches an etymologist extreme caution: faced with so many options, one should tread gingerly and look at the entire range of a word’s meanings and at persuasive parallels in other languages before formulating even a tentative conclusion. Historical semantics smiles invitingly, but is a minefield.
It is amazing how many English words mean “mad.” Slang is particularly cruel: bughouse, screwy, nutty, cuckoo, cracked, and what not. Some of them have obvious origins. Bug is an old name for “hobgoblin” and all kinds of frightening creatures. A screwy person perhaps has a screw loose. Besides, the verb and the noun screw conjure up an image of things turned. The other senses of screw need no commentary. The cuckoo bird has for millennia been associated with insanity (a most unfair association). Cracked is a self-explanatory metaphor. But why do we go nuts? A few conjectures exist; none of them is persuasive enough. We have seen that words designating “mad” can start out as “changed; crippled” and “of irregular shape.” In other cases, the beginnings are found in “possessed by an evil spirit,” “sick,” “with one’s mind in a wrong place,” “stunned,” and “unsociable.” The sky has not been blameless either, as lunatic and moonstruck testify. But the greatest injustice is done when people’s good qualities are looked upon as abnormal and their bearers as dupes. German albern “foolish; absurd” has been traced to a compound “trusty, friendly,” possibly “kind.” The earliest known meaning of Engl. daft was “mild, meek.” The OED suggests that the transition to the sense “stupid” may have been assisted by Middle English daff “simpleton, fool,” but since the origin of daff is unknown, this hypothesis goes only so far. Silly, as the OED reminds us, once meant “happy,” possibly “kind” (too accommodating!). Are both life and the history of language tales told by an idiot? Let us hope not.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”