On the Word “Lunatic”

After my post “Decimal-Crazed Lunatics,” I received an email (from someone whose son suffers from a psychiatric disorder) expressing concern that using the word “lunatic” encouraged the stigmatization of mental illness. These are subtle issues, to which I know I don’t have all the answers. I’m sure my approach will be unsatisfactory to some, but it seems right to share my reply.

Dear L_____,

Thank you for your thoughtful email; I appreciate your reaching out to share your story and the hurt that my post’s title caused you.
I didn’t mean to cause you any sadness, and I feel bad to have done so. Although I’ve never faced a psychiatric struggle of the same magnitude as the one that you and your son face, I (like everyone) have friends and family who suffer from mental illnesses ranging from autism to bipolar disorder, and I would never wish to make light of their pain or struggle.
I’ve spent a few days reflecting on your message. In particular, I spoke with a friend (an English teacher) who helped me think through the issues involved. I hope it might lessen the hurt you’re feeling if I explain why I used the language the way I did, so I’ll try to do that below.
My view is that words like “mentally ill,” “disabled, “bipolar,” and “schizophrenic” all have specific medical (or legal) meanings. I would never want to use words like these in a glib or lighthearted way. Such terms are serious, and belong in their proper context.
By contrast, words like “beserk,” “screwball,” “buffoon,” and “unhinged” are used (often for comic effect) to describe unusual or strange behavior. I would never want to use words like these in a serious way; they are casual, informal words.
The word “lunatic,” to me, belongs in the latter category. (My own approach is pretty well summed up by the Wikipedia page for “lunatic,” which says, “The term may be considered insulting in serious contexts in modern times, but is now more likely to be used in friendly jest.”) “Luna” refers to the moon. reflecting an astrological superstition that the moon’s phases cause strange behavior. After a few centuries of quasi-medical usage, the word has no serious or psychiatric value today, and hasn’t for several generations. Anyone calling a mentally ill or disabled person a “lunatic” would be quite wrong to do so, and I understand why you would be upset to imagine someone applying such jocular and dismissive language to your son.
Again, I’m grateful that you reached out to me, and I’m sad to have caused you sadness. I will update the post to include a link to this message.
Thank you for prompting me to think critically about these issues, and I wish you and your son the best.
Best wishes,
Ben Orlin
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