image ©Gabriel Green
Jonathon Green – visit his terrific website here - is the English language’s leading lexicographer of slang. His Green’s Dictionary of Slang is quite simply the most comprehensive and authorative work on slang ever published. In another exclusive for The Dabbler, Jonathon follows up his drunken tour by looking at madness…

Whatever the background of Jared Lee Loughner’s murderous attack in Tucson, one thing is avowed by every variety of partisan voice: the man is seriously mentally disturbed. Which makes this foray into slang synonymy, for terms to describe the mad, conveniently, if depressingly timely. Mad, like insane, is not much used into the psychiatric/psychoanalytic community, but slang, as usual, is less sparing. There are several hundred terms for those who are, as the late Labour grandee Denis Healey once put it, stark staring bonkers. Rather than list them all, I want to focus on those that one way or another suggest that the hapless individual is not all there

Not all there is the oldest of such locutions. It has been recorded since 1864, and must have existed earlier, since the citation, ‘Hans Jansen was what is commonly called not all there’ suggests that the phrase was already well-known. The 1930s added half-there; it doesn’t appear to have had many takers, though Ulstermen use half away, presumably ‘with the fairies’. Round the bend or round the twist suggest absence, though the stress may be on the plumbing. 

There are a pleasingly wide selection of synonyms. There are those that deal with money, the earliest being not sixteen annas to the rupee (sixteen annas being the full rupee), which smacks of Kipling and was still being used by Christopher Hitchens in the 1990s. Mid-19th century America offered not the full dollar, with an alternative only ninety-nine cents out of the dollar. The shilling, in slang a bob, comprising 12 old pennies, and with 12 twenty shillings to the pound sterling, was especially prolific: a few bob short of the pound and only eighteen bob in the pound, a ha’penny or ninepence short of a shilling; two pence short of a bob, and twopence halfpenny short of the deener, which last also meant shilling and came from the Italian dinero, and ultimately the Latin denarius. And if the full shilling meant sensible, intelligent, aware, trustworthy, ‘all there’, then not (quite) the full shilling spoke for itself. Yes, another one for the van. Not the full quid, i.e. pound, performed the same function. We have also seen ninepence short of a shilling, or tenpence-halfpenny or elevenpence in the shilling and only eighteen shillings (with ‘in the pound’ being assumed. Offering a wider world was three kopecks short of a rouble.) 

Then there is food. To be out to lunch was born on the US campus in the 1950s and is still going strong. To be off one’s trolley may suggest a basis in food, but is more likely linked to trolley buses, with their overhead power lines. Most food images, in any case, refer to a lack thereof and such imagery seems to have come on stream in the 1960s, with the canonical one sandwich short of a picnic and has expanded the menu by citing the picnic’s lack of a pork-pie, two biscuits and indeed two sandwiches. Moving further away from traditional England we encounter a few spring rolls short of a banquet, and two tacos short of a combination plate. Fast food receives its acknowledgement with a few french fries short of a happy meal. French fries are of course chips, giving several chips short of a butty, and three chips short of a happy meal (though such an Anglicism may not please the franchisees of what some call Mickey D’s Rainbow Steakhouse) . There are other chips too, and the jumble of phrases offers a couple of chips short a computer, a cookie, an order; plus the somewhat cumbersome a couple of computer chips short of a complete circuit, and a few chips short of a casino bet. Not the full cup of tea is sedulously home-grown, while the theologically minded may or may not approve of two wafers short of a communion

As ever, it is a joy to reach Australia, where the turning of phrases appears to be a national pastime. One sausage short of a barbecue may be international, but the echt terminology comprises a couple or a few snags short of a barbie, and one chop short of a barbie. Beer naturally plays a parallel role: one may be a couple of tinnies short of a slab or of a six pack. Madness in every sense. New Zealand substitutes the term stubbie, though it doubtless appears at the western end of the Tasman Sea. Oz also gives us crazy as a gumdigger’s dog, have beetles in one’s arcade, lose one’s knob, off one’s saucer (the image of an unhappy pet), and mad as variously a cut snake, a meat-axe, a maggot and a gum-tree full of galahs. Nothing to do with absence, but irresistible. 

The head is, among much else, the figurative top of the human house, and if the elevator doesn’t go to the top floor or top storey, or fails to reach all the way to the top then things ‘up top’ are not as they should be. One is, as they say, queer in the attic (a use of queer meaning ‘ill’ that long predates any slang-driven homophobia). Above the floor is the roof, and on that shingles, or tiles. Thus a shingle short, a couple or several shingles short and loose in the tiles. On a more general level, still building-bound, are apartments to let and to have a vacancy on the top floor. The house as a whole is reflected in one brick short of a load, with its variants a few or a couple of bricks short of a load; short is sometimes found as shy

Finally a few loners. To row with one oar in the water; and to have a button short or loose. It can also be a few buttons. Then, since slang can never resist a pun, there’s one stop short of East Ham: look at the London tube map, one stop short of East Ham is Barking. Boom! Boom! 

 

You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

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  1. Brit on Thursday 13, 2011

    Do you have a question for Mr Slang?

    Jonathon has agreed to do some occasional Q&A specials, in which he will answer any slang-related queries (such as the origins of slang terms etc).

    Just post your questions in the comments or email editorial@thedabbler.co.uk and we’ll collect them up….

  2. Worm on Thursday 13, 2011

    my father currently thinks ‘mad as a box of frogs’ to be hilarious and he wheels it out at every opportunity

  3. Gaw on Thursday 13, 2011

    One of my favourite jokes (a Vic Reeves’) is: “I’m barking mad, me – I am, I love the place.” Better spoken I suppose.

  4. Susan on Thursday 13, 2011

    I’ve always thought the phrase ‘one sandwich short of a picnic’ to be rather a curious expression, sort of cleverly mad. Stark staring is rather more scary…

  5. Worm on Thursday 13, 2011

    Do we know where the word bonkers comes from?

    • Jonathon Green on Thursday 13, 2011

      Bonkers in the sense of literally or figuratively mad turns up in the 1950s, and although Eric Partridge had it meaning drunk ‘from the 1920s’, I’ve never encountered evidence of this. The origins appear to be the verb ‘bonk’, to hit, which is echoic of the sound (and thus the noun ‘bonk’ an abrupt, heavy sound, a thump). Bonk, echoic again, was used in World War I meaning to shell, but the use disappeared thereafter. Bonkers seems to blend bonk and part of the once popular formation ‘Harry –ers’, a verbal style, originally popular in the World War II services, in which various words are prefixed by ‘Harry’ and suffixed by ‘-ers’, meaning ‘state of’, e.g. ‘Harry flakers’, tired out; ‘Harry crashers’, asleep etc. Thus bonkers (which is occasionally found abbreviated as bonk) means ‘the state of having been hit on the head’.