How offensive is the word 'lunatic'?

Full moon stock image
Image caption The word 'lunatic' originally referred to a kind of insanity that recurred according to the cycles of the moon

Two US senators have proposed to excise the word "lunatic" from federal law, calling it outdated and offensive. What are the word's origins and why is it so offensive?

The word "lunatic" has been codified into US law so long it has outlasted its currency in the psychiatric profession.

Many experts say they are surprised a term that in antiquity referred to madness influenced by the lunar cycle survives in such a prominent place in the US Code - its very first section.

The US Code is the official codification of US federal laws. In it, the word "lunatic" appears in a section of basic definitions, and later in a tract dealing with bank mergers.

Last month, Senators Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, and Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, proposed the 21st Century Language Act, a 257-word bill that would strip the word out.

"The continued use of this pejorative term has no place in the US Code," Mr Conrad said on the Senate floor.

"'Lunatic' is an unnecessary term and... its removal will have no impact on the broader federal law."

'Drunkards' and 'idiots'

The bill is the latest in a series of efforts in the US and Britain to strike terms for mental illness and developmental disability that are deemed antiquated and offensive from the law and from public discourse.

In the US, a 2010 act of Congress replaced "mental retardation" with "intellectual disabilities" in several places in the US Code.

Tennessee last year passed a law replacing "handicapped" with "having a disability" and "idiot, lunatic, person of unsound mind" with "person adjudicated incompetent". In 2009, the state of Maine inserted "person with alcoholism" in the place of "common drunkard" and "person who is legally incompetent" for "lunatic".

The 21st Century Language Act does not include replacement language.

Advocates say the moves are not merely politically correct word-policing, but legitimate attempts to ease the debilitating stigma attached to mental illness and developmental disability.

"The written laws of the US, let alone the ones at the state level, are official pronouncements," says Bob Carolla, a spokesman for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"It can show up in court proceedings, it can show up in any kind of legal citation or boilerplate. Anyone with a mental illness is never going to know when they're going to be slapped in the face by it, and it's coming in a very official context."

Not only is the word "lunatic" older than the current understanding of mental illness - it is far older than the English language itself.

The word stems from the Latin "luna" meaning moon, with the "atic" suffix meaning "of the kind of", according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the word originally referred to a kind of insanity supposedly dependent on the phases of the moon.

The word, written in Latin as "lunaticus", an adjective, first appears in writing in the 4th Century Vulgate Bible, attributed to St Jerome.

In Matthew 17:15, a man asks Jesus to have mercy on his son who "lunaticus est". More than a millennium later, the compilers of the King James Version rendered the passage with "lunatick".

Passed through languages

In the Digest, a 6th Century legal code ordered compiled by the Emperor Justinian, "lunatic" shows up in a passage discussing the value of slaves.

The word may have entered English through Norman French, which received it from late Latin.

In English, it first appears in the South English Legendary, a verse compendium of saints' lives composed in the 13th Century near Gloucester. Roughly a century later, it shows up in The Vision of Piers Plowman, the late-14th Century allegorical poem by William Langland.

The word enters the American medical lexicon in the 19th Century with the development of modern psychiatry, says medical historian Gerald Grob, an emeritus professor at Rutgers University.

"'Lunatic' was a descriptive word," he says. "Today we would use 'mental illness' or the like."

And only later did it develop an offensive, pejorative connotation, researchers say.

In the 19th Century, the so-called lunatic asylums, often run by the city or state, became overcrowded and the target of reformers.

The word "lunatic" thus developed a sordid, hateful association, and it dropped out of the medical lexicon by the end of the 19th Century, Prof Grob says. It was replaced by "insane", and subsequently by "mental illness".

The US law that would be amended by the new bill was passed in 1947. In the Senate, Kent Conrad said federal law should reflect the 21st Century understanding of mental illness, a notion shared by scholars.

"This thinking is definitely antiquated and it needs to disappear," says Christopher Lane, a professor of English at Northwestern University in Illinois, and author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

"Any move to present those conditions in a more neutral and scientifically informed way should be welcomed."

Image caption Advocates say 'lunatic' unfairly connotes danger and unpredictability

Dangerous and unpredictable

Mental health advocates describe the move as a small step toward healing the stigma of mental illness.

The word "lunatic" connotes danger, wildness and unpredictability, says Prof Patrick Corrigan, a professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"It sort of captures them in a snap shot as this dangerous, unpredictable, different soul," he says.

The preferred terminology is "people-first" language that does not define individuals diagnosed with mental illness by the condition.

"If somebody has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, that may be a significant thing in their life but it isn't their whole being, their whole identity," says Eduardo Vega, director of the California Center for Dignity, Social Inclusion and Stigma Elimination.

"The impulse to define people by a characteristic, and in particular a disability or an illness, is very dehumanising."

Researchers and scholars note that the removal of the word "lunatic" illustrates plainly how quickly language evolves - and warn journalists, legislators and medical professionals not to get too attached to the new vocabulary.

"I would be confident that 100 years from now, the terms that we now see as enlightened will be seen in the same way that we consider these old-fashioned terms," says Allan Horowitz, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who studies mental illness.

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