the maddest in the room


Headlines were made when Wikileaks, in their recent targeting of Hillary Clinton, released a transcript of a private speech by Bill Clinton. British news outlets (orig AmE) zeroed in on a particular passage from the speech for their headlines:




It looks, especially if you speak BrE, like Clinton was making a claim about the sanity level of Jeremy Corbyn (current leader of the UK Labour Party). This is a bit of headline evil.

Three things conspire here to give Clinton's statement an 'insane' interpretation in the headlines and many of the articles:
  1. AmE uses mad to mean 'angry', but BrE doesn't so much. 
  2. The maddest is before the noun.
  3. Some of British newspapers seem to be withholding the American meaning from their readers.
 So let's take those in turn.

1. The difference in mad

Mad can mean 'insane' or 'angry' in AmE, but is not as often used to mean 'angry' in BrE.

It's one of those word-uses that America preserved and Britain threw away. Originally mad was used of animals to mean 'rabid'. By the middle ages, it was used of (non-rabid) people, describing behavio(u)rs like those of a rabid animal: aggression (as if one is angry) or loss of the senses and frenzied behavio(u)r (as if one is crazy). Both senses were brought to America, but by the turn of the 19th century, BrE had mostly stopped using the ‘angry’ sense of mad. It was still around, though, for instance in the King James Bible: “And being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:11).

Mad 'angry' was thus one of the first Americanisms that British folk started complaining about. If you think it means 'insane', then using it to mean 'angry' could seem a bit simple, like you couldn’t tell the difference between feeling angered and losing your senses altogether. 

Mad isn't "American for angry", though. Angry is how Americans say angry. The words are near-synonyms, but mad tends to be used in less formal settings. That it's not completely equivalent to angry can be seen in their different grammatical behavio(u)rs, which brings us to...

2. The position of maddest
An adjective can go before a noun (attributive use) or on the other side of a verb from the noun it modifies (predicative use), as in:
  • She's a happy baby.  (attributive)
  • The baby is happy.   (predicative)
Not all adjectives go in both places. We can say the baby is glad (about something), but it's weirder to say she's a glad baby. What you can see from the baby examples is that the predicative use makes happy a less intrinsic property of the baby. She's happy now, but she might not have been two minutes ago and might not be two seconds from now. She's a happy baby seems to say something more general about the baby: she has a good disposition.

Now let's try that with mad:
  • He's a mad person.   (attributive)
  • That person is mad.  (predicative)
In BrE, the 'insane' meaning comes to the fore in both cases, since the 'angry' sense isn't in very active use. In AmE, you're very likely to get the 'insane' meaning in the attributive, but the 'angry' sense in the predicative context. (The 'insane' meaning is also possible--but Americans tend to say crazy when they mean that kind of mad.) This goes along with the point I was making about happy in these positions: the more stable trait ('insane') is more likely to go before the noun than the more fleeting emotion ('angry').

In AmE, like BrE, we're used to a range of mad='insane' phrases with attributive mad: a mad man,  mad scientist, the Mad Hatter and so forth.  MAD Magazine has a "crazy" kind of humo(u)r, (AmE) mad libs is a game of crazy word combinations,  and (AmE) mad money is money that you're free to spend in a crazy way [well, it is now--see first comment for further back!].

Typically, it's easy to disambiguate mad because the 'angry' meaning is directed at something. You are mad at someone or about something. (If you're American and felt that That person is mad meant 'insane', it's because there was no "something" to be mad at in the context I gave you.) We could call it a "two-place adjective": it has a "subject" (the one who is mad) and (loosely speaking) an "object" (the thing that's causing the anger). The 'insane' meaning generally isn't directed--you're insane or you're not insane, but you're not insane at something. That's connected to the attributive/predicative difference as well: you can fit the 'about/at' information into the predicate position (I'm mad at the newspapers), but it's harder to do in the attributive position: The mad-at-the-newspapers linguist is writing this blog.

You can see a similar thing going on with other "two-place adjectives". He's a proud parent is interpreted as 'He is proud of his child(ren)' because parent sneaks in the information about the thing that's causing pride. But in He's a proud person, we get a different interpretation (either 'arrogant' or 'stoic'), because it doesn't tell us what he's proud of

3. Clinton didn't mean 'insane', but the headlines were meant to make you think he did
So, what's going on with Clinton's the maddest person in the room? It looks like it means 'craziest', but...in the full context of Clinton's speech, it clearly doesn't. Here's the relevant passage:
If you look all over the world – the British Labour Party disposed of its most [inaudible] leader, David Miliband, because they were mad at him for being part of Tony Blair’s government in the Iraq War.
And they moved to the left and put his brother in as leader because the British labour movement wanted it.
When David Cameron thumped him in the election, they reached the interesting conclusion that they lost because they hadn’t moved far left enough.
And so they went out and practically got a guy off the street to be the leader of the British Labour Party, who I saw in the press today said that he was really a British citizen and had real British [inaudible].
But what that is reflective of – the same thing happened in the Greek election – when people feel they’ve been shafted and they don’t expect anything to happen anyway, they just want the maddest person in the room to represent them.

Clinton has set up mad as being 'mad at the powers that be', and he's repeating it in maddest to signal that angry people are looking for an angry leader.

The Guardian and Huffington Post UK both used the clickbait phrase "maddest in the room" in their headlines, but at least had the decency to point out in their articles that mad can mean 'angry' in American English (and probably meant so here). The Telegraph and the Independent (which, I'm sorry to say, gets more and more clickbaity by the minute now that it's no longer a print newspaper) used the headline but did nothing to challenge the impression that Clinton had called Corbyn "the insanest".

Wikileaks has been aiming to sow a particular kind of (clearly partisan) chaos. With headlines like these, the newspapers are only helping them to do it rather than taking a responsible position.


And the guy off the street
While we're here... Clinton's guy off the street probably also sounds worse in BrE than in AmE. In AmE the man on the street is the averagely informed person. If you call the person on the street away from the street, they would be a 'man off the street'. That doesn't work quite the same in BrE, where that person is the man in the street. Here's Noam Chomsky using man off the street to mean 'averagely informed Russian':
I don’t know much about Russian public opinion, but I imagine if you picked a man off the street, he would be surprised to hear a reference to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
A couple of UK readers have suggested to me that they'd interpret guy off the street as meaning 'homeless man', which clearly (to this AmE reader) wasn't what Clinton intended. The news sites didn't help readers to interpret this one either.


And a few notes before I go
I'd been doing well at blogging on a weekly basis, but the US election results threw me off my routine--and not just because it's left me waking in the middle of the night questioning what kind of world I've brought a child into. I'd been asked by the BBC to go up to Media City to be on The Verb with Ian McMillan that week. The brief had been to talk about words of 2016--but not politics because everyone would be sick of politics after the election. I prepared some materials and was on my way up north the day after the election, when the producer called to say "given what's happened, we can't not talk about politics now". So, instead of writing a blog post, I ended up preparing twice for The Verb. If you're interested in hearing it, it's available for listening here for 17 more days.

John Kelly wrote a piece on Slate about how we were talking about the election in the days after it, and he quotes me reflecting on what it was like talking to people at the BBC about it that day.

I've been thinking about what to choose for my US>UK and UK>US Words of the Year. There's a definite frontrunner for UK>US, and there was a frontrunner for US>UK: till I discovered that dog-whistle (nominated by a couple of you) was first (as far as the OED knows) used in Canada, and then made it big in Australia before going to the US. Now, I've little doubt that the UK media/politicians picked it up from the US, so it might still qualify as US>UK WotY. But if you have better nominations, I'd love to hear them. The criteria are that it should be a word from the US that made it big in the UK this year. That usually means that it made a splash in the media somehow. It should be a long-standing word in the US, not one that was invented this year--so that it's really an Americanism that has shown up in the UK, rather that just "a new English word". Please feel free to post suggestions in the comments.

60 comments

  1. "Mad money" was originally money a young woman carried on a date in case she got mad (angry) at her date.

    The earliest citation in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from 1922: "Money a girl carries in case she has a row with her escort and wishes to go home alone." It didn't acquire its "impetuous purchases" meaning until the mid-1950s.

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    1. Damn it, I thought I was going to be the first person to chime in with this comment, if only because I'm old enough to remember the expression in its first iteration.

      Now I'm mad.

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  2. I think dog-whistle politics was imported from Australia along with Lynton Crosby back in 2005

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    1. I certainly first heard it in a political sense in connection with the 2004 Australian federal election and then Lynton Crosby came over to the UK and brought both the idea and the word with him ("Are you thinking what we're thinking?")

      What I don't know is whether it originated in the US before that and was US>Australia>UK.

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    2. I've not heard of "dog whistle politics" so presumably it just hasn't penetrated this far into the UK yet.

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  3. My wife (born 1943) was giving her daughter (born 1987) mad money into the 1990s.

    On the subject of misleading headlines, ex-NYC-mayor Rudy Giuliani was quoted in many places as saying "Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman?" with the significant omission of the rest of the quotation, namely "and the only thing she’s ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?" Although this is technically an independent clause, it functions like a relative clause. My guess is that he meant to say "who the only thing she's" etc., and then successfully suppressed that non-standard form with its resumptive pronoun, but couldn't rewrite what he had already said. I hold no brief for Giuliani (hey, I didn't vote for him) or for his opinions, but the widespread charge of male chauvinism can't be sustained on the basis of an amputated quotation.

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  4. To me off the street is a familiar phrase meaning 'chosen at random with no relevant experience or qualification — and not even known to the chooser'. I can see that being Bill Clinton's view (exaggerated, of course) of Jeremy Corbyn's election

    That squares with Chomsky's notion, which I take to mean 'a Russian taken at random'.

    By contrast a man in the street is someone with no specialist knowledge of what's under discussion, and the man in the street is 'a typical person — the average Joe'.

    In the street is neutral, almost positive. Off the street is (for me) usually negative.

    The second [inaudible] must be the key to what Clinton meant. Nothing else could suggests that Corbyn might be angry — or, indeed, mentally unbalanced.

    (The first [inaudible] would seem to be 'electable'.)

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    1. Ha! I thought the second [inaudible] was going to be [teeth] as Corbyn has a rather shaggy appearance, and 'British teeth' is a common put-down from Americans. Of course we can sneer at over-whitened, over-straightened teeth in return!

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    2. 1. The state of Jeremy's teeth wouldn't justify But what that is reflective of ... introducing the point that Corbyn is like the 'maddest' person in a room full of similar people. Neither they nor he could, I suggest, be 'mad' — in any sense of the word — on account of their teeth.

      2. That second [inaudible] was an indirect quote. Whatever it was, it was chosen by the BrE speaker Jeremy Corbyn, not the AmE speaker Bill Clinton.

      3. Although Lynne didn't include it in her transcript, the fullest versions elsewhere contain the observation [laughter]. Whatever that second [inaudible] was, Clinton and/or his audience considered it a ludicrous word and/or concept to be claimed as real British.

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    3. "Man off the street" carries both the meanings you cite to me (AmE) -- 'a persona at random' and 'your average person' are very related meanings, obviously, and I don't find it easy or relevant to distinguish between them in my experiences with the phrase. Of course, "man in the street" is just wrong in my brand of AmE, so not sure what we'd use to make that distinction anyway.

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  5. Given that David Milliband was never Leader of the Labour Party, I would guess that first (inaudible) to be something like "likely next". The second (inaudible) is probably something like "values".

    "practically got a guy off the street" I would interpret to mean "grabbed a random passing stranger" - because Corbyn was completely unknown outside of his own constituency, having never held office in either the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet.

    As David Crosbie observes, this is very different from "the man in the street" which is a personification of ordinary people's views. The original version of this, sadly rarely heard nowadays, was "the man on the Clapham omnibus".

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    1. You would have thought, given the legal origin of "The man on the Clapham Omnibus" as a measure of a reasonable, educated non-expert in a negligence trial, there ought to be a previous but similar term that it replaced really, for the average man in the street.

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  6. Although it's off-topic, Jeremy Corbyn is (mostly) in a state with the UK press similar to that of Trump to the US press (at least before his election) where they hate him. His party, like the GOP, largely hate him too.

    It will be interesting to see come the general election if he can repeat Trump's success despite the runes being against him.

    It will be interesting... most of the readers of the newspapers will never vote for Corbyn anyway but there is definitely a grassroots support for him. And I suspect a big chunk of them know the US-definition of "mad" as angry. I didn't know the etymology (through laziness) but certainly knew the difference already, along with pissed and quite a few others.

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  7. Nice analysis (I especially appreciated point 2).

    An additional point I'd like to make in this context:
    In the disability community, use of terms such as 'mad' (in the insane sense, not the angry sense you point out was intended here) and 'crazy' is seen as ableist. See this article:

    https://mic.com/articles/121653/6-forms-of-ableism-we-need-to-retire-immediately#.igxQwjeCQ

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  8. One does hear 'mad' being used to mean angry over here. However, its connection with the normal meaning (to us) of 'mad', means it would inevitably convey the impression of a frenzied anger, something slightly unhinged, something which had broken loose from the rational.

    I think there's also a difference in prepositional use. 'Mad at' I'd understand but it sounds distinctly North American. It would also convey something either including or getting very near physical violence. I think over here, a person who did use 'mad' to mean angry would say 'mad with' if it was directed at a person or 'mad about' if concerned with a thing or an issue. 'Mad about' can of course also mean 'obsessed with'. As such, again, it implies being unhinged.

    Incidentally, I've commented before on other differences in prepositional usage. Although one is starting to hear 'for' now, until very recently people on this side of the Atlantic were named 'after' nor 'for'. The first time I heard 'named for', it sounded really odd. There is also a difference in UK usage between talking 'to' someone, 'with' them and 'at' them. Does that apply in the US? 'To' and 'with' are not that different; 'with' just sounds slightly more egalitarian. But talking 'at' someone is definitely bad. It conveys arrogance, ignoring whether the other person is listening or not, and not allowing them to respond.

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    1. I have just heard someone on (BBC) Radio 4 say that a situation was ' maddening' - in other words it infuriated her, or made her feel 'mad'. This is actually a fairly common usage in the UK.
      Not to be confused with the Madding Crowds of Grey's Elegy or Thomas Hardy's novel.

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    2. iIn my speech, if something is maddening, it makes you angry — but not very angry. Closer to 'annoying' or 'frustrating'.

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    3. In the US, "talk at" suggests a one-way conversation, that someone is talking but not listening. However, it's also used in a jocular way, as in (I will) "Talk at you later."

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    4. On the "talking X" question:

      As an American, "talking to" can mean either "lecturing" (as in "give him a good talking to") or else the same as "talking with" ("I was just talking to/with the plant manager ...."). I think* I would be notably more likely to use "to" in that context than "with", but wouldn't stumble over either.

      "Talking at", for me, implies a lecture that is being, or expected to be, ignored. The speaker is speaking, but the target is not listening.

      * Notions about ones own speech habits are notoriously unreliable, of course.

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  9. I think 'angry' is rather a tame paraphrase for mad at. Surely Clinton's view is that the Labour rank and file were furious — that extreme anger clouded their judgement.

    Personally, if I want to tone down the force of mad, I may say hopping mad.

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    1. On second thoughts, I think resentful is how Clinton thought the Labour activists were, and that the people in the room — disaffected Greeks and Brits — were enraged.

      Even if I'm reading too much into it, wee shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this was an adverse comment, not a dispassionate assessment.

      • It doesn't take much background knowledge of Bill Clinton's political thought to discern the irony in 'they reached the interesting conclusion that they lost because they hadn’t moved far left enough.'

      • His account of Corbyn's reported remark can't be reconstructed because the punchline word was inaudible, but we do know that it was funny. How could it have been anything other than a ridiculing put-down?

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    2. Maybe in the UK, but not for this US speaker. "Mad" ranges in force, but generally is rather tame. A more colloquial near-synonym is 'pissed'. "Hopping mad", though, suggests furious anger.

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    3. In the UK 'hopping mad' would suggest merely 'indignant' rather than 'furious', with the added implication that the speaker is slightly mocking the angry person and doesn't think the subject of their indignation is really worth getting (BrE) het up over.

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    4. "Mad" is the same as or tamer than "angry" to this AmE speaker. I can't picture a North American ever saying "hopping mad", but if I heard it, I'd assume it was stronger than just "mad" -- like so mad it made you hop? Idk, "hopping mad" sounds VERY British to me.

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  10. Incidentally, another US synonym for angry that can cause confusion to British ears. Someone was telling me they were reading a medical thriller - Robin Cook or the like - and it began, "The surgeon came out of the operating theatre. He was pissed."

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    1. In BrEng that means 'drunk and in no fit state to conduct a surgical operation'.

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    2. I encounter more and more young British people using the AmE 'pissed' to mean angry instead of the BrE 'pissed off'. For want of one syllable it creates a lot of confusion.

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    3. Is "pissed off" really BrE? AmE speakers, at least in my experience, use both "pissed off" and "pissed" pretty often and generally interchangeably.

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    4. I suppose it's more the case that it's not BrE to say "pissed" for angry.

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  11. "I'd been doing well at blogging on a weekly basis"
    Changing the subject, may I ask about the construction 'on a such-and-such basis'? Is it more prevalent in British English than American? It seems omnipresent in the former; I encounter it many times a day. Recently I heard 'on an eight monthly basis' on Radio 4; 'every eight months' sounds more elegant to me (and it's more concise).

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    1. On such and such a basis isn't at all new. The OED lists

      9. That on which anything is reared, constructed, or established, and by which its constitution or operation is determined; groundwork, footing:

      a. a thing material.
      ...

      a thing immaterial; a principle, a fact.

      a1616 Shakespeare Twelfth Night (1623) iii. ii. 31 Build me thy fortunes vpon the basis of valour.
      1622 G. de Maleness Consuetudo 423 Where the Basis of Exchange..is made vpon our twentie shillings sterling.
      1845 J. R. McCulloch Treat. Taxation ii. vi. 252 Assessing licence duties on such inapplicable bases.
      1871 R. W. Dale Ten Commandm. vi. 151 If Moses had to regulate our legislation in reference to railway accidents, he would put it on altogether a new basis.
      1876 J. R. Green Short Hist. Eng. People (1882) iv. §4. 190 Among the German races society rested on the basis of the family.

      What does seem to be recent — possibly just BrE, possibly not — is the use with interval of time expressions. I think we can see it as an extension of the OED's 9b: the 'principle' being a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly... one.

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    2. "On a basis" is widely overused in the US. As an editor, I normally change "on a weekly basis" to "weekly" and do the same with similar constructions.

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    3. David Gouldstone

      So you encounter it on a daily basis, then?

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  12. Peter Simple wrote of the Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the manner of Chinese communists: "Wilson, you will be thrown on the dust-heap of history on a tit-for-tat basis".

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    1. In BrEng that statement is gobbledygook. Recognising the context, it was probably meant to be.

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  13. It would never have occurred to me to understand that Clinton's reference to "some guy off the street" carried any implied reference to homelessness. But it seems clear from the context that it was intended to carry some derogatory connotation, on the assumption that, as the Clintons and their supporters think of Trump, Corbyn is unqualified by virtue of his lack of experience in the demands of governmental politics - even if the whole piece is seeking to explain why enough of the relevant voters think that a positive advantage.

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    1. I don't think American politics have any relevance here. Corbyn's history is very different from Trump's and invites different objections.

      I took Clinton to imply that Corbyn was a nonentity, a voice on the far fringe with no support among his colleagues and no potential appeal to the British electorate. A nonentity and a bit of a joke. This was how he was portrayed in the UK press when he was first proposed as a leadership candidate. And this picture would have been available to a foreign politician who took something of an interest in British politics — as Bill Clinton clearly does.

      While it may be true that many Corbynistas value the man as a non-politician, I don't believe that Clinton thinks so. I think there's enough evidence in the text and in Clinton's known views to suggest that he sees Corbyn's hard left views as the reason for his support among people whose judgment is — in Clinton's view — blinded by resentment and frustration.

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  14. What about crazy, though? There's a usage which has currency here (but which I would guess came from America), as in, "He's a crazy kind of guy", which, far from questioning the sanity of the person described, can carry some approbation perhaps.

    I recall, when I was teaching English in Egypt a long time ago, a colleague getting into a very awkward situation when he described a student as crazy (in this sense). The student got extremely "mad at" him, as he thought his sanity was being questioned and took it as a very serious insult.

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    1. "Crazy" in AmE can mean "unwise" (perhaps a bit more intense, though) or "unusual" in addition to its other senses. Since the original sense was something like "full of cracks", the "mentally unwell" meaning is already metaphorical, of course.

      I can't speak to where those other meanings arose.

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    2. I never understood the AmE phrase "crazy like a fox". There is no English sense of 'crazy' which could be applied to the perceived character of a personified fox.

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    4. It's said of someone doing something seemingly unusual, unwise, and insane, but actually quite clever: if you think Donald Trump's tweets are just knee-jerk reactions to something he saw on TV then he's crazy, but if you think he's writing them to distract the public from more serious charges against him, he's crazy like a fox.

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    5. American here. Crazy like a fox actually means someone is not crazy. Their actions may appear crazy or irrational but are actually cunning.

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    6. A possible translation, used by many BrE speakers:

      There's method in his madness.

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    7. "There's method in his madness"

      An allusion, of course, to Polonius' aside: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't", Hamlet II,ii, 195

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    8. Doug Sundseth

      '"Crazy" in AmE can mean "unwise"'

      Yes, as in (of an unwise proposed course of action, perhaps),"That's crazy!", but I think the meaning I'm trying to get at here is probably more closely related to the beatnik/hippie argot, "Like, crazy, man!".

      Unfortunately, I can't remember the exact way the word was used in my anecdote, above, only the misapprehension that it stood for the Arabic magnoon (insane).

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    9. An earlier positive sense of crazy was rather like zany. the sense was revived when this 1927 song by the Temperance Seven

      Crazy words, crazy tune,
      All that I ever hear him croon
      Vo do de o, vo doe doe de o, doe--doe doe doe.
      Sits around, all night long
      Sings the same words to every song
      Vo do de o, vo doe doe de o, doe.
      His ukulele, daily
      How he'll strum!
      Bum bum bum!
      Vampin' and stampin'
      Then he'll holler, "Black bottom!"
      Crazy words, crazy tune,
      He'll be driving me crazy soon
      Vo do de o, vo doe doe de o, doe.


      [By the way, the verses are interesting. See here.]

      I looked in the Blues Concordance to see how crazy was used at broadly the same time. About half the instances used crazy about meaning 'infatuated with'.

      There's one thing in this world : I cannot understand
      That's a bow-legged woman : crazy about a cross-eyed man

      I know the mens don't like me : because I speak my mind
      All the women crazy about me : because I takes my time

      Wild about coffee : but I'm crazy about China tea
      But this sugar daddy : is sweet enough for me

      Now but I know you don't love me : baby you don't love me no more
      I know the reason you don't love woman : because you is crazy about Mr so-and-so


      A clear parallel with Noel' Coward's Mad About the Boy

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    10. David

      Not forgetting, from the same heritage, ZZTop's Sharp Dressed Man.

      (Should be "Sharply Dressed", of course -- Americans, eh?!)

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    11. Crazy meaning 'zany' was taken up this side of the Atlantic in the 1930's by a set of comic acts billed collectively as the Crazy Gang.

      You could still see them occasionally on TV when I was a boy. I didn't find them crazy in this or any other sense. And they weren't so much a gang as three double acts plus one.

      The one pair that hadn't dated were Flanagan and Allen, notable not so much for their comedy as their ability to inject calm dignity into silly songs about shooting a rabbit or mending umbrellas, and above all a sentimental celebration of sleeping Underneath the [railway] Arches.

      So reassuring was their sound, and so nostalgic for 1930's peacetime that Bud Flanagan (Chesney Allen having died) was engaged to sing the opening song for Dad's Army.

      Twenty years offer the formation of the Crazy Gang, a collection of comics emerged who were crazy in this sense. Their radio show was called Crazy People, but renamed after one season as The Goon Show.

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  15. @Zouk Delors -- Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin had a recurring comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970's where the characters they played referred to themselves as "two wild and crazy guys", using the phrase in the sense you mention.

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    1. Yes, I think the usage I'm talking about means something like "not bound by convention" and I suspect (no real evidence, as usual!) it may have started with black Americans in the world of jazz*. There are quite a few entries under crazy in the Urban Dictionary with this sort of meaning, so it hasn't gone out of vogue, e.g., this (#7):

      'Crazy' is generally a positive, desirable characteristic (unless you are very calm yourself), describing someone who is very out there, fun to be with, unrestricted, creative and plain awesome. You might associate a crazy person with partying, being ridiculously obscene and loud in public with their friends, and cracking jokes. You would not usually find a crazy person pondering on their philosophy of life, discussing how amazing War Literature is or talking about how delightfully tasty their English tea is.

      Crazy people can either be cool or just plain annoying. There is the crazy that everyone loves, where you are the life of the party, or the crazy that goes overboard, where people want to avoid you.
      1) "Hey, did you see Mia at the party last night?"

      "Yeah, oh my God, she was on the tables dancing half naked, kissing girls, everything. That girl is crazy, I love it!"

      2) "Did you see that new girl in school?"

      "I heard about her, she set off 3 fire alarms on her first day thinking that everyone would find it hilarious, but it was sooo childish and dumb! that girl is too fucking crazy."


      Note, though, that this was posted by "Miaaaaa", so may not be entirely neutral with respect to the behaviour cited at (1) and indeed, such behaviour would at one time have been regarded (and still would be, probably, in some places) as falling squarely within the standard meaning of "insane".

      *cf The citations above in blues and popular music, to which I would add Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven, which includes the line, "She got a crazy partner /
      Oughta see 'em reel and rock
      ". Incidentally, according to Nigel Rees, of BBC's Quote Unquote, this is also the only popular song to include the word trifle in its lyrics!

      P.S. I think I would pay good money to hear a cover of Sharp Dressed Man in the style of Noel Coward, with the hookline, "Ev'ry gel's mad about a sharply-dressed man".

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    2. One synonym that is now pretty much obsolete here, and I suspect was never used in the USA anyway, is "potty"; I was amused when a friend said her dog had "gone potty"; to me, that implies he had gone a little crazy, whereas the lady in question merely meant her dog had done what dogs generally go outside to do.

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    3. At least in my northeast AmE, potty is understood to mean crazy in the right context.

      Delete
    4. We (AmE) also use it to mean drunk when it takes the form of potted, as in potted plant.

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  16. Listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the umpteenth time, I noticed that King George's song "You'll Be Back" plays on this difference of meaning. The song is arranged like a possessive boyfriend's pseudo-romantic plea to a girlfriend who is drifting away. Twice he says some variation of "you're making me mad," which refers to both an angry lover and a deranged king.

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  17. My Londoner mother, born 1922, used to say "Ooh, it makes me SO mad!" and variations on that, all meaning angry. But in general, people who were mad were destined for the madhouse.

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  18. Commenters on this Language Log post (18 November), about different words for "anger" in other languages and their shades of meaning, point out that madness always refers to insanity, never anger. None there, though, seems to have picked up on the attributive/predicative distinction for mad.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)