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What is a Lunatic? An Interesting Example of Word Morphology

"Did you read in the newspaper some lunatic was on the prowl again?"

You've heard the word, perhaps used in a fashion similar to the above; you've even used the word yourself . But could you give a clear definition what it means ? And do you know how its meaning has changed over time?

Well, let's begin with the current definition of the word. According to a few online sources, its meaning incorporates:

  1. Someone who behaves in "a dangerous way".
  2. A "maniac".
  3. One who suffers from "epilepsy".
  4. Someone "mentally deranged".
  5. A person "wild, crazy, or absurd".

What was the word originally intended to convey?

Derived from Latin, notice the first four letters of the word l-u-n-a, or luna . This is another name for the Moon. The light and changing phases of the moon were believed to inflict some persons with mental disorder, perhaps by means of sleep deprivation.

Of particular note is the concept of intermittent mental aberration, such as is experienced by epileptics or others, with periods of lucidity. The 1879 American Cyclopedia affords this quote:

“A lunatic,” says Blackstone, “is one that hath had understanding, but by disease, grief, or other accident hath lost the use of his reason; he is indeed properly one that hath lucid intervals, sometimes enjoying his senses and sometimes not, and that frequently depending upon the change of the moon.”

Today, the word lunatic is not used technically to describe any sort of mental illness.

Image Credit » Pixabay

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MegL wrote on April 9, 2018, 9:29 AM

So the meaning of lunatic is "like the moon", as in "the lunatic changes like the moon", i.e. having different phases.

VinceSummers wrote on April 9, 2018, 10:06 AM

Some have suggested werewolf as one manifestation.

lookatdesktop wrote on April 10, 2018, 10:40 AM

Great post. You are the man.