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Loons, Moons and Loony Toons

Rob Kyff on

As I write this, I'm watching two loons float calmly across a mountain lake in the northern Adirondacks. Oops -- make that one loon; the other one just dove beneath the surface.

This ornithological display makes me wonder if the word "loon," meaning a bird, is related to "loony" or "lunatic," meaning crazy. After all, loons do engage in somewhat eccentric displays and occasionally emit a semi-maniacal tremolo: a humanlike laugh described by Henry David Thoreau as "unearthly" and "demoniac."

Or perhaps "loon," like "lunatic," originated with "lunar." Indeed, the bird's haunting tremolo is often heard on moonlit nights.

Nice tries. "Loon," which first appeared in English during the early 1600s, is believed to be derived from the Scandinavian term for the loon, "lomr."

The "loon" that means a crazy, foolish or silly person comes from the Middle English "loun." Originally, this "loon," which entered English in the 1400s, meant a lout, idler, rogue, and later this negative definition was extended to mean a crazy person or simpleton.

"Lunatic," derived from the Latin "luna" (moon), entered English during the 1300s because many people back then believed insanity was caused by the light of the moon, especially the full moon. This notion survives today in our myths about werewolves and vampires which, of course, aren't true. Right? Right?

Meanwhile, "loony," an adjective form of "lunatic," emerged during the late 1800s, giving us such colorful 20th century expressions such as "loony bin" and "looney tunes," derived from the name of the animated cartoon series. Ronald Reagan memorably used the latter term to describe the leaders of outlaw nations as a "collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals."

 

What's fascinating is that the "loon" meaning a mentally unbalanced person, while originally derived from the Middle English "loun," has been seriously amped up in its "crazy" meaning by two other linguistic power sources: "lunatic" (an insane person) and "loon" (a slightly unhinged bird). Some linguists even believe the spelling of the adjective as "loony," rather than "luny," might have been influenced by the bird "loon."

A triple play! How could "loony" mean anything else?

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian-derived designation of the bird as a "loon" is reinforced by its loony (oddball) and lunar (nocturnal) behavior. It's as if a man named Mason who worked as a mason was also a Mason (member of the Freemasons)! Now THAT's loony!

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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