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shameless pleading

Demented

Dawn already? How do I get those birds to shut up?

Dear Word Detective:  Where did the word “demented” come from? A sleep deprivation experiment was conducted by William Dement at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, and I believe the word comes this. Am I right? — Danny Foster.

Ah, yes. “Sleep, the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast …,” that sleep? Don’t care for it, myself. No time. Things to do, y’know. Haven’t slept in months. Doctor gives me pills. Well, not really a doctor, but I don’t like to pry. I’ve been thinking of running for president, but I can’t find my feet. Is there someone at the door?

And now for the good news: one of us may be crazy, but it’s not you. My initial suspicion was that William Dement was just a figment of an urban legend concocted to explain the origin of “demented.” But he turns out not only to be a real guy (always a plus), but the honest-to-gosh pioneer of scientific sleep research. He basically invented the field, and he’s still at it. (One does wonder, of course, whether Dr. Dement’s name played a role in his choice of career.)

The corporeal existence of the illustrious Dr. Dement notwithstanding, however, his name is not the source of the common English word “demented.” For that we turn to our old friend Latin, where the phrase “de mente” means literally “out (de) of one’s mind (mente).” This produced the Latin verb “dementare,” meaning “to drive out of one’s mind.” The source of the Latin “mente” was the Indo-European root “men,” which also produced “memory,” “reminisce,” “mathematics” (from the Greek “manthenein,” to learn), “mind” and several other common English words.

The English equivalent of the Latin “dementare” appeared in the 16th century as the transitive verb “to dement,” which meant literally “to drive someone out of their mind.” This verb, apparently having little practical application outside of old Vincent Price movies, is rarely used today. But the adjective formed from “to dement,” our friend “demented,” is alive and well and has meant, since it first appeared in the mid-17th century, “out of one’s mind; crazed; mad.” There existed, at one time, “dement” as both a noun (“A dement was known to the writer who could repeat the whole of the New Testament verbatim,” 1888) and an adjective (“Speak, man, speak! Are you dumb as well as dement?” 1856), but both forms are now largely obsolete.

We frequently use “demented” and other terms such as “nuts,” “crazy,” “bats” and so on to denote, often in a humorous way, someone who is eccentric or whose opinions we find questionable. Actual mental impairment or illness is, of course, a serious condition and those so afflicted need and deserve sympathy, understanding and support. The medical term “dementia,” a Latin noun meaning “the state of being demented,” is used to cover a range of mental symptoms and states, ranging from mild to severe.

The past, not surprisingly, is full of synonyms for “demented” that have fallen by the wayside, but one of the strangest must be the obsolete adjective “wood” meaning “insane; mad,” also found in such terms as “woodness,” woodship” and “woodhead.” This “wood” has nothing to do with trees; it’s from the Old English “wod,” derived from Germanic roots that carried the sense of “angry, inspired or excited.” The Old Norse branch of the same root produced the name of the Norse god Woden (aka Odin), memorialized in Wednesday (Old English “Wodnesdaeg,” Woden’s Day).

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