By definition, ‘madness’ correlates to one or something which is mad. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘mad’ as:

“1. mentally deranged; insane. 2. senseless; foolish. 3. angry; resentful. 4. wildly enthusiastic (about) or fond (of). 5. extremely excited or confused; frantic. 6. wildly exuberant. 7. temporarily overpowered by violent reactions, emotions, etc.”[1]

The word ‘mad’ has come to mean something as frivolous as over-excitement, or enthusiasm, to something as serious as a question of sanity. In today’s culture and society, madness has even been used as the moniker of a zany ska-pop band, and it is used in reference to a neurodegenerative disease in bovine – or Mad Cow Disease, but which came first: the emotion, or the level of sanity? When did it become readily acceptable that madness was not only a state of mind, but also a quantifier for enthusiasm?

In order to understand the root of the term ‘madness’, we need to go back to its roots.  The word ‘mad’, according to dictionaries, is from before 900 A.D. and derives from Middle English vernacular for ‘madden’, and Old English ‘gemǣdan’, or to make mad; akin to mad, foolish.[2]  Even within the mid-centuries, the term signified a sense of foolhardy action, or senselessness. Perhaps it is this basis, and association with profound behavior which led the word to become synonymous with mental disorders.

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Literature often alludes to the cultural influences of an era. Many poets through the centuries have suggested that inspiration comes to them; that their works are often not their own, but those of a muse. According to Tracy K. Smith, one such poet, Federico García Lorca, believes that it is to the ‘duende’ which inspiration comes:

“Unlike the Muse or Angel, which exist beyond or above the poet, the duende sleeps deep within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost.”[3]

This illusionary ‘demon’ is often how madness and mental disorders were diagnosed. In the early Middle Ages, possession and demonic pranksters were often considered the reason for madness, or early cases of schizophrenia. We have come along way, though, in learning and discovered that mental disorders may lead one into madness, but they are not caused by anger or emotion.

The substitution of definition for ‘madness’ had become a readily acceptable practice by the 1300s; an era also known for the bubonic plague. Many medical doctors had come alongside playwrights and poets in the use of the term. Mental health asylums had become wide-spread institutions across Europe. This isn’t to say they didn’t exist prior, but in correlation to the use of language, it plays a strong significance that mental health and ‘going mad’ would be considered synonyms at this time. It is perhaps unsurprising that Dante’s Divine Comedy speaks of madness in similar ‘medical’ terms in Canto XXX:

When vanish’d the two furious shades, on whom

Mine eye was held, I turn’d it back to view

The other cursed spirits[4]

In this Canto, Dante witnesses ‘insanity’ as the punishment of those who chose to deceive throughout history and myth.

Language is constantly changing and developing as the society which uses it continues to evolve and change. In this millennium, we have readily accepted the use of ‘madness’ to refer to foolish, excitable enthusiasm; as well as temporary insanity or related to anger. Originally, perhaps it is to be considered this was not always the case, with the term referring more to a senseless activity, or akin to a jester’s antics. In time, physical attributes of certain mental disorders have leaned the word towards references of questionable sanity. Coupled with the use for anger, it has developed into today’s known definition.


_. Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford UP., Standard Edition, 2000.


_. mad. Unabridged (v 1.1).

Random House, Inc. (accessed: September 15, 2007).


Alighieri, D., Canto XXX, The Divine Comedy.

The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.  (available: )


Smith, Tracy, K., Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Federico Garcia Lorca and Duende

The Academy of American Poets, 2007. (available at: )

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, p.793-794
[2] mad. Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. (accessed: September 15, 2007).
[3] The Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, named the keeper of that space the duende—daemon (Tracy Smith, 2007).
[4] Canto XXX, lines 47-49.

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