After a long winter, the short days and dark nights, our cold houses and heavy coats, begin to feel like a prison. They make us go stir-crazy, as we say. But why stir? Is it because the confinement make us stir with restlessness? Confinement, it turns out, is behind the stir in stir-crazy, just much more literally than you may have guessed.
Beginning as a slang term in 19th-century London, the stir in stir-crazy means “prison.” According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, stir may have originated as a variation on Start, a nickname criminals gave to Newgate, a notorious prison throughout London’s history. Stir, if this is true, broadened out from “Newgate” specifically to “prison” in general.
The Oxford English Dictionary first cites stir in Henry Mayhew’s 1851 journalistic investigation, London Labour and the London Poor. His interviewees mention folks “in stir” or “out of stir,” or, as Mayhew helpfully glosses, jail or prison.
By the early 20th century, stir had traveled to the United States, where crazy was added to describe “a prisoner who has succumbed to prison-induced insanity,” as slang lexicographer Jonathon Green defines it. He points out many colorful permutations: Stir-bug, stir-nut, stir-psycho, and stir-simple all referred to such prisoners who had gone stir-crazy, while stir-batty, stir-happy, and stir-looney were other ways to characterize the experience. US prison slang used stir for other terms throughout the 20th century, too, such as a stir hustler (“one who has mastered the ‘art’ of incarceration”) and stir lawyer (“a fellow prisoner who offers advice based on his own purported legal expertise”). Green also finds stir active more recently, used for “time served in prison” come the 2010s.
And so stir-crazy went from behind bars into the mainstream. But why did criminals call the Newgate Prison Start in the first place? While it’s not 100% certain, as matters seldom are in the business of etymology, many scholars think those Victorian thieves stole from Romani—the language of the so-called Gypsies, as we saw with the word pal—for their underworld lingo. Barnhart roots Start in the Romani stardo, “imprisoned.”Jonathon Green, meanwhile, suggests stir may have skipped the Start-Newgate connection and was shortened directly from the Romani sturiben, “a prison,” from staripen, “to imprison,” ultimately from štar for the same.
Perhaps the etymology of stir-crazy will help you next winter: At least you’re not locked up at a dark, damp, and dismal 19th-century London jail.