We need to talk about the word ‘mad’

by | Mar 10, 2023

We need to talk about the word ‘mad’.

They edited ‘mad’ out of Roald Dahl books, along with ‘crazy’. 


‘The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing like mad’

has become…

‘The Oompa-Loompas were all rowing frantically’.

And in the BFG:

“Boys are crazy,” Sophie said.’

has become…

‘“That one was weird,” Sophie said.’

The word ‘nutty’ has been allowed to stay, which is good news for the Nutty Professor.

This does beg a question: 

Is this political correctness gone ‘mad’? 

These edits are certainly making lots of people mad.

I wrote a book called ‘How The World Is Making Our Children Mad, And What To Do About It’. A few people on the publishing journey were uncomfortable with the ‘M’ word. But on balance, I think it is the mot juste.

Louis Weinstock’s book 'How The World Is Making Our Children Mad, And What To Do About It'

A brief history of the word ‘mad’

Before I explain why – a potted (potty?) history of the word ‘mad’.

According to the etymologists, the word ‘mad’ comes from late 13th Century Old English gemædde – “out of one’s mind”. But by the early fourteenth century, it had already picked up the meaning of “being beside oneself with anger.” In Henry IV, Shakespeare’s Hotspur says: “To be so pester’d with a popinjay, Out of my grief and my impatience, Answer’d neglectingly I know not what, He should or he should not; for he made me mad.”

smiling children posing in front of the Roald Dahl museum in the UK

In the 18th century, the first ‘mad-doctors’ began treating patients in ‘madhouses’, which were mostly private houses that held people ‘disordered in mind, who seem disposed to do mischief to himself, or another person’.

From the nineteenth century onwards, an organised group of medical professionals emerged who claimed jurisdiction over mental disturbance. And as the treatment of madness became medicalised, the language evolved. Words like ‘neurosis’ and ‘psychosis’ were coined, deriving a different kind of authority from their Greek and Latin roots. 

Of course, these new terms weren’t suddenly free of agenda. Neurosis was largely used a replacement for the by then out of fashion term ‘hysteria’, used to describe women who Victorian physicians believed had ’weak nerves’- they were more sensitive and mentally and emotionally fragile than men.

Madness and mental health

The word ‘mad’ didn’t suddenly disappear under the white lab coats and latin suffixes of the new psychiatric sciences. To this day, the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is a popular figure. The term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from the hat-making industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, when workers in hat-making factories were getting tremors and hallucinations from the mercury used in the hats.

When I was about 10, I loved reading MAD magazine. I remember the naughty sense of humour, and those fold-in pages at the back where you would find the answer to a question by folding the back pages in and discovering it made a different (often rude) image with different words.

In 1999, the Mad Pride movement was started by four men who had all experienced mental health issues and wanted to reclaim their ‘Mad’ identity. One of the founders, Mark Roberts, explained that he wanted to reclaim the ‘M’ word in the same way black people had reclaimed the ‘N’ word. 

Similarly, today there are a series of online magazines like Mad In America and Mad In The UK that provide a platform for challenging the mainstream model of mental health treatment.

‘Mad’ is a word that has power. 

Sometimes the word is used to objectify and enslave another human, as in:

‘You must be mad, woman!’ from The Witches (now changed to ‘“You must be out of your mind!”).

Books by Roald Dahl. Some of his much-loved children's books have been altered to remove words such as "fat," "ugly," and "mad."

With the history of women’s oppression, with words like ‘hysteria’ (meaning ‘from the womb’) being used to ‘other’ and control women’s emotional states, most can understand the sensitivity here.

But, sometimes, the word ‘mad’ can be empowering, liberating, as in Jack Kerouac’s lines: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”  

Madness and society

What any particular society deems ‘madness’ can illuminate, as historian Andrew Scull explains: ‘madness reminds insistently of how tenuous our own hold on reality may sometimes be. It challenges our sense of the very limits of what it is to be human.’ 

When we edit out the wild, passionate, naughty, uncontained energy behind a word like ‘mad’, what possible reality are we saying yes to, and what are we saying no to?

And, sometimes, we can reclaim madness as having more intelligence, more wisdom than those behaviours deemed ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ or ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’, as is the sense behind Emily Dickenson’s gorgeous poem:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Sometimes madness have more intelligence, more wisdom than those behaviours deemed ‘sane’, ‘rational’, ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’

What ‘madness’ can teach us beyond mental health?

And so, I don’t want to blanket edit the word ‘mad’ about of my book or out of the world. Mad describes the energy of the youth climate marches, millions of young people taking their anger to the streets to fight for a viable future. Mad points to the ‘divinest Sense’, the lessons a discerning eye can see in our children’s psychological suffering. What if they are simply responding to a world that isn’t meeting their needs. What if their symptoms (which are also our symptoms – stress, anxiety, depression, burnout) are unconscious, intelligent forms of resistance to a mad world.

Our children are growing up feeling like they are in some way mad, bad, or broken. But its this speeded-up, self-centered, competitive, polarised, race-to-the-bottom world that is mad.

I refuse to let this world make me feel like I am going mad.

I refuse to let that happen to the children I care for.

I hope you do too.