It’s not just me? You, too, were recently reflecting on the comedic stylings of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s ’90s sitcom Mad About You? Oh, no. That’s right. Maybe mad is on your mind because you’ve been gearing up for the American college basketball extravaganza, March Madness. Sorry, Paul. For more on the origins of “March Madness,” this old Slate piece sum its up.
I’ve been mad about mad, though, because of my recent musings on its counterpart, angry.
A semantic aside. I could say “My fiancée is so mad at me right now” or “My fiancée is so angry at me right now.” Both work just fine. However, I don’t think we can interchange madness and anger. We reserve the latter for the emotion, while the former is the domain of the insane. What determines this? Well, it’s all semantics, I guess.
Anyways, what is this mad about?
We get mad from the Old English, mād, aphetic for gemǣd, from gemǣded, past participle of an undocumented or lost verb. (Aphesis, you may remember from fray, is the loss of an initial vowel. How ’bout that?) Perhaps this verb, as Skeat maintains, is gemǣdan, “to drive mad.”
Madness–or “insanity,” being “out of one’s mind,” “foolishness”–is indeed the earliest sense of the word mad, which the OED documents as emerging in the 1300s. This mād threw out the usual Old English adjective for the matter, wōd, though it appeared in the compound mādmōd, “folly.” Think mad mood.
But how do we get from “insane” to “angry”?
The OED cites a range of meanings that help tell the story. Mad referred to aggressive animals, such as those with rabies (~1275), or persons who are “extravagantly or wildly foolish” and “ruinously impudent” (~1300). The OED notes we shouldn’t turn over any stones because the earliest attestation of mad is “rabid.” It has no priority, with all the mad‘s cropping up around the same, approximate 1300 mark.
Mad also described being “carried away by or filled with enthusiasm” (~1325) or being “crazy” and “mentally unbalanced” (~1330, probably earlier). And, by about 1400, it described being “beside oneself with anger.”
And mad cow disease, attested in 1988, harkens back to earliest meanings of “berserk” behaviors.
The key to mad, then, is the intensely foolish or excited behavior displayed in insanity or anger. This speaks to how madness, in both its forms, makes us different, something other than our ‘normal’ selves–it speaks to how it changes us.
Indeed, “change” may well be the ancient root of mad. Gemǣded is probably passed down from gamaidaz (OED, ʒamaiðaz), whose middle, maid/maið, points to the Proto-Indo-European *mei, “to change.” Shipley also glosses for this root “move away,” “exchange,” and “arrange for services.” He notes that this root was expanded to *meig-, *mein-, and *meit-. The first explains derivatives like migrate. The second common and municipal. The third mutate and mutual. (All of these are from Latin.)
The nature of the change is a bit more specific in the Germanic descent into madness. Gothic has gamaiths/gamaids, meaning “crippled” or “maimed.” Icelandic shows meiða for the same. Old High German presents gimeit/gameit for “foolish” or “vain.”
Focusing on the injury angle, Partridge attempts to connect mad to this very maim. The jury is out on this maim. It is likely a Romance form but could be connected to the Germanic forms for “hurt” like Icelandic’s meiða or the Proto-Indo-European mait-/mai- (to cut, to hew).
Another aside. We get mayhem from maim. It was a variant that emerged as a late-1400s French legal term: “the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence” (OED). Mangle is cognate as well.
It’s a Mad World
Mad is an active moonlighter, if you will. We have “as mad as a hatter,” referring “to the effects of mercury poisoning sometimes formerly suffered by hatmakers as a result of the use of mercurous nitrate in the manufacture of felt hats” (OED, as with all ensuing references).
Let’s not leave out the others. We have as mad as (a):
- (March) hare
- meat ax & cut snake (Australia, New Zealand)
- tup (a ram, whose sexual connotations are probably not lost on users of the expression)
- (wet) hen
And mad gives me occasion for a little Ohio pride (I come from the Buckeye state), as two Ohio newspaper are given the first OED attestations for mad money and mad scientist. For the latter, the Newark Daily Advocate published in 1893: “Nerving myself for the blow, I felled the mad scientist dead at my feet.” For the former, good old Lima News printed in 1922: “The 1922 girl ‘squirrels’ or hides, a few dollar bills known as ‘mad money’.”
Then we have mad‘s use as “cool” in US jazz slang, emerging in the 1940s and reemerging to refer to something abundant or in excess in the 1990s, e.g., “The DJ had mad skills.”
Mad: a small, everyday word made up of three simple sounds. It does a lot with little. I give it mad props for that.