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Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week: Lunacy

A remnant from a time when Man believed that the moon caused intermittent periods of insanity.

ht weekend Updated: Jul 12, 2019 19:47 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
Shashi Tharoor,Lunacy,Moon
(HT Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Lunacy, (noun): the condition of being a lunatic; mental unsoundness.

Suggested Usage: This was an act of sheer lunacy on his part; what he said and did made no sense and can only be blamed on a bout of insanity.

The moon, in most Indian languages, is a romantic object, associated with love and dreams, and often applied to rare and exceptional individuals – “chaudhvin ka chand”, “Id ka chand” are always compliments, and popular names like Chand, Chandran and Shashi all derive from that celestial orb.

But in medieval English, lunacy referred to intermittent periods of insanity, believed to be triggered by the moon’s cycle, rather as animals were said to bay madly on full-moon nights. This came in turn from the Old French lunatique, meaning insane, which was derived from the Late Latin lunaticus, or ‘moon-struck’ (luna is Latin for moon).

In those days people thought that mental illness, neurological disorders and even epilepsy were related to the waxing and waning of the moon. Perhaps this was because a full moon brought light into the night, thereby confusing animals – and some human beings – with brightness when they were accustomed to darkness, and thus throwing their minds into confusion.

The idea that lunacy involves acts of madness or folly persisted, even though the correlation between sanity and the phases of the moon stopped being taken seriously in modern times. Lawyers used it to refer to unsoundness of mind that might make a person incapable of managing their affairs or concluding civil transactions. Indeed, the word “lunatic” appeared in British laws – and therefore Indian ones – well into the 20th century, and it was only in 2012 that the US House of Representatives passed legislation (approved earlier by the Senate) removing the word ‘lunatic’ from all federal laws in the US.

Today it is widely accepted that ‘lunatic’ is an obsolete term that is not used any more to refer to persons suffering from mental illness. ‘Lunacy’ survives, but only in metaphorical and often jocular usage; to use it literally as a synonym for insanity would, at the very least, be considered impolite. It’s totally normal to enjoy looking at the moon! (Of course, Shashi would say that….)

First Published: Jul 12, 2019 19:47 IST