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.

Mutant Roots

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):

  • Ajax
  • brush
  • buck
  • goose
  • hornet
  • (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
Lewis Carroll’s Hatter with his equally mad companion, the March Hare, along with Alice and the Dormouse. Maybe there is something in the tea. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

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the emotions, part ii (afraid/surprised & angry/disgusted)

Fast Mash

  • From the French-based affrayafraid likely comes from the Vulgar Latin exfridare, joing ex- (out of) and the Germanic frithu (peace), constructing fear as a “breach of peace”
  • Surprise is Latin-by-way-of-French: French surprendre joins super (over) and prendere (take, seize), rooting the word in a notion of a “sudden attack”
  • Through Old Norse, anger comes from the Proto-Indo-European *angh- (choke, squeeze); anguish, anxiety, and angst are related
  • Via French, disgust joins dis- (opposite) and gustare (to taste), from the Proto-Indo-European *geus– (taste, choose). This same root indeed gave English choose

Earlier, we looked at how happy got lucky and how sad got its fill. But what’s the story of the remaining core emotions: afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted?



I think it comes as little surprise, really, that scientists root surprise in fear. I’ve witnessed some well-intended surprise parties induce panic-paced pulses. The word afraid, however, is not rooted in fear, for as much as “afeared” has been considered a corruption of “afraid.” No, at the root of afraid is…free.

Afraid is the past participle (think broken in, say, broken bone) of afray or affrayfrom the French esfreer (worry, concern, trouble, disturb). This French verb, in turn, is said to come from the Vulgar Latin exfridare, joing ex- (out of) and Frankish frithu (peace). (Frankish is a West Germanic language). The sense is, as Weekley puts it, “a breach of the peace.” Skeat goes feudal with “the king’s peace.”

Free is cognate to frithu, at the root of which is the Proto-Indo-European *pri, “to be friendly” and “to love.” That rejiggers your reckoning of freedom, don’t it? Fray, as in “in the fray,” is an aphetic form of “affray.” In aphesis, an initial, unstressed voweled gets lost.

The Online Etymology makes an interesting observation about afraid: It is a “rare case of an English adjective that never stands before a noun.” Meaning, we would not say “the afraid boy,” but rather, “the boy is afraid.” There is a handful of so-called predicative-only adjectives in English: ablaze, abreast, afire, afloat, aghast, aglow, agog, ajar, alert, alike, alive, alone, aloof, ashamed, asleep, awake, aware, fond, and unaware. What’s interesting is that many of these begin with a-, but what’s more interesting is that these a-‘s have different origins: The ain afraid has come down from a Latin prefix, ex-, while the a- in aloof is an Old English form, meaning “on.” Anyways, this topic deserves its own discussion.


Surprised also snuck into English from French: the Old French surprendre, “overtake” or “seize,” joing sur- (over; from Latin super) and prendre (to take; from Latin prehendere [to take hold of]). In the 15th century, a surprise was a military term, a “sudden attack” or “capture,” while its emotional sense emerges in the 17th century.

And, in 1858, a “surprise party,” according to Richard Thornton’s American Glossary, was:

Sometimes called a donation party. A gathering of the members of a congregation at the house of their preacher, with the ostensible purpose of contributing provisions, &c., for his support.



Remember this riddle? This web comic kxcd pretty much sums it up:

“Word that End in Gry.” Courtesy of xkcd:

Angry is from the Old Norse, angra, meaning “to grieve” and “vex” (ODEE), originating in the Proto-Indo-European *angh-, “to squeeze,” “narrow,” and “painful.” Here, we see a sense of how choking and constricting raises the blood pressure–perhaps literally. Cognates include the Latinate anguish, the Greek anxiety, the Germanic angst, and, the true bane of all existence, the Old English hangnail.

While hangnail looks like it blends hang and nail, it’s probably from the still extant agnail, “a corn on the foot” (ODEE). It blends instead a form of *angh- and nægl (nail, “hard excrescence of the flesh,” as the ODEE put its). Just as /h/ can fall off words, so it  can jump aboard.

Lest the puzzle pester you like a hangnail, English also has aggryanhungry, gry, iggry, mawgry, and puggry. They’re obscure, archaic, and more-clever-than-though-rage-inducing.


The French, arbiters of “taste”: From desgouster (have a distaste for), disgusted features the Latin prefix dis- (opposite of) and gustare (to taste). This verb should leave a Proto-Indo-European aftertaste, for at its root is *geus-, “to try” or “to taste.” Latin and Greek pursued the latter meanings, while, down the Germanic line, this *geus– eventually put choose on the English menu. Some systematic sound changes were certainly in play. 

When Emotions Get Physical

I am taken by how bodily the origins of these basic emotions are–sadness weighs us down, anger chokes us, surprise takes a hold of us, our taste buds are decision-makers. Happiness, too, points back to what fits us. And freedom suggests getting along–friendship, affection, love between people, between bodies. OK, that’s one’s a stretch, but the point stands, as we have seen here before on the Mashed Radish. At root, our experience of the world–our experience of ourselves in the world and the way we have come to talk about it through language–is fundamentally embodied and metaphorical.

m ∫ r ∫

the emotions, part i (happy & sad)

Fast Mash

  • Happy originally meant “lucky,” from hap (fortune, fate, chance, luck). This hap goes back to the Proto-Indo-European *kob (fit, suit). The meaning shifts towards “contentment” around the 15th century. 
  • Sad comes from the Old English sæd, meaning “full,” in the sense of having one’s fill. Sated is cognate, from the Latin satis (enough), as in “satisfy.” Feelings of fullness gave way to a tiredness and heaviness that became associated with what we now refer to as sadness. 

How are you feeling today?

Illustrated by Jim Borgman, a Cincinnatian, this proud transplant will have you note.

All across the nation, this poster is fading on the sides of bulky filing cabinets that squat in the offices of high school counselors. If we heed recent research, though, we might want to restrict our menu.

As The Atlantic reports, some scientists hypothesize that, on the most basic level, there are four core emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Their findings collapse the long-running, conventional distinction between afraid and surprised as well as angry and disgusted.

Psychologists, philosophers, and scientists will no doubt continue putting the nature, number, and nativity of emotions on the proverbial couch. But, speaking of origins, what does etymology have to say on the matter?

Let’s get to the bottom of happy and sad.


Happy joins hap and the adjective suffix –y, which denotes ‘having the character of,’ ‘inclined to,’ or ‘consisting of,’ as the ODEE glosses this productive sound.

Early on, happy meant “lucky,” for hap conveyed “chance,” “fortune,” “luck,” and “fate.” Attested in 1200, hap hails from Old Norse happ, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *khapan, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *kob. This root, meaning “suit,” “fit,” or “succeed,” has cognates in the Old Church Slavonic kobu (fate) and the Czech koba (consequence). Old Enligh’s gehæp kept this ancient sense, signifying “convenient.”

The OED attests happy in the sense of “contentment” in 1477. But the meaning is still “getting lucky,” if you will, in happilyhaplessmishap, happy accident, and happy-go-lucky. And, of course, happen, well, happens.  


Mick Jagger was right on the money when he sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Sad comes down to us from the Old English sæd, which meant “sated”–as in “full”–and indeed is related to the word “sated.” Via Proto-Germanic *sathaz and Proto-Indo-European *seto-, sad ultimately goes back to the root *sa-, “satisfy.” This root gave Latin the same, satis, yielding everything from “satisfy” to “satiate” to “saturate.” 

But how do you go from gluttony to grief?  Sad‘s sense of fullness became a metaphor for “tired” and “grieved” (Skeat) through the centuries, as well as for “steadfast,” “serious,” and “solid” (ODEE). To these, Weekley adds “settled,” “orderly,” and “sober.” Associations of “fullness” to “darkness” likely gave additional fuel to the shift as well. Today’s principal reference to grief is attested in the 14th century.

Cause and Effect 

How do we conceive of happiness today? Do we consider what befalls us luck? Or do we like to think that we have more agency in our happiness, the result of hard work and effort, of rolled-up sleeves and elbow grease? Perhaps its sadness we are more apt to attribute to fate: Not getting the job or the boy/girl was “simply not meant to be,” or how terrible tragedies that defy even our most basic understandings of reason, sense, purpose, and causality.

Next post, we’ll get in touch with more of our feelings: afraid, surprisedangry, and disgusted.

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