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Semantic Insanity Essay

1582 words - 6 pages

"Mad props! That trick you did was insane. You're the craziest of the crazy." "You've gone mad. You have spiraled into mental insanity. You're completely crazy and must be institutionalized." These two contrasting examples colorfully demonstrate the vast range of semantic meaning which can be used for words in the English language relating to mental insanity. Loony, Mad, Cuckoo, Insane, Crazy, Disturbed, Nuts, Deranged, Demented, Fanatic. Each of these terms has been at some point used in the English language to describe the condition of mental illness. The explanation for why the English language has so many terms to express what seems to be one idea is not at first apparent. Although it may at first appear that these words are identical in meaning, further consideration reveals that this is far from the case. While each word in this group can be taken to mean "mentally insane", each word has a different and unique way of expressing this idea. Moreover, slang usage of many of the words in the "insane" grouping have thrusted many of these terms into a new and entirely different semantic realm. This paper will discuss the various terms within the "insane" grouping and the interesting semantic changes that they have encountered. Furthermore, the possible origin and causes of these semantic differences will be explored.Perhaps the oldest word to describe one who is mentally ill in the English language is the word lunatic. The word was first used in the English Language in the 13th century. If we break the word apart, the prefix, lun refers to the moon and the suffix atic refers to a person. Thus, literally translated, lunatic means "moon person". This is due to the middle age wisdom that the moon caused abnormal, immoral or otherwise unacceptable behavior. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, lunatic means "affected with the kind of insanity that was supposed to have recurring periods dependent on the changes of the moon"[1]. Lunatic attempts to describe the conditions that mentally insanity arises out of, namely, a mischievous moon. Like lunatic, the word fanatic, which arose in the 1500's, also attempts to describe cause of insanity. The OED defines fanatic as "an action or speech: Such as might result from possession by a deity or demon"[1]. When this word came into use, insanity was thought to have come from demonic possession, rather than the moon. Let us compare these forms with another example in common usage, mad.Mad is one of the most commonly used words referring to the mentally insane. Unlike lunatic which attempts to describe why people act insane, mad is more of a description of how insane people are perceived to act. Mad signifies abnormally aggressive behavior [1]. The word carries with it the idea that the mentally insane are aggressive or violent by nature but does not attempt to explain the cause of such behavior in the way that lunatic and fanatic do.Insane first entered the English language during the16th century, shortly...

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