Saturday, December 08, 2012

`Let the Meaning Choose the Word'

The U.S. House of Representatives has asserted its linguistic authority and voted 398 to 1 to eliminate the word “lunatic” from federal laws. As an English noun it dates from the fourteenth century and cognates show up in most Western languages. It has a pleasing and time-honored sound, instantly understood, and no one seriously credits the phases of the moon with influence on human behavior. For some of us, Theseus fixes it forever when he tells the young Athenians in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The lunatick, the louer, and the Poet / Are of imagination all compact.”

The offending word is found in the U.S. Code, Title 1, Chapter 1: “the words `insane’ and `insane person’ and `lunatic’ shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis.” That reads like common-sensical legal boilerplate but lobbyists with the Mental Health Liaison Group say such words “only serve to perpetuate this stigmatization.” I’m not convinced. No one confuses run-of-the-mill eccentricity, oddness of character or what Dr. Johnson, speaking of his friend the poet Christopher Smart, called “unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world,” with true lunacy. Would you rather be diagnosed as a lunatic or, in the words of the DSM, as suffering from “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual [which] is associated with present distress...or disability...or with a significant increased risk of suffering?” George Orwell, always lexically cautious, uses “lunatic” with vernacular, non-clinical care in his 1936 essay “Bookshop Memories”:

“In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.”

All of us know who Orwell is talking about. Elsewhere, he writes: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” The sole dissenting vote in the House was cast by a member of the Texas delegation, Rep. Louie Gohmert, who said of “lunatic”: “It really has application ’round this town.”


Roger Boylan said...

Well, for once I'm proud of a Texas politician.

Anonymous said...

My congressman and a distant relative! ha! You made my day.