On June 29, 1902, the New York Times reported on a party of men, women and children — 20 all told — who left Independence, Missouri in two wagons drawn by oxen, headed to California for the gold rush back in the Fall of 1851. Delayed by sickness, and having lost its way at least once, the party had accidentally left the trail and consequently, didn’t make it out of Death Valley alive. The newspaper reported:
In the cooler seasons men inured to the hardships of the desert have been known to go several days without water, subsisting on the juice of the cactus; in the Summer season from twenty-four to thirty-six hours is sufficient to unsettle their reason. A newcomer, a “tenderfoot,” will go stark, raving mad in from four to eight hours in hot weather if he has not water. During the days in the middle of the Summer the thermometer stands anywhere from 125 to 135 degrees in the shade in the coolest place that can be found.
Henry Fielding was the first to use the phrase ‘stark raving mad’ in his play “The Intriguing Chambermaid” published in 1734 where his character, Goodall states in Scene VI:
I find, I am distracted! I am stark raving mad, I am undone, ruin’d! cheated, impos’d on! but please Heaven I’ll go with what’s in my House.
The phrase stark staring mad was an earlier version of stark raving mad and found in John Dryden’s book “Persius Flaccus” published in 1693.
Each saddled with his burden on his back ;
Nothing retards thy voyage, now, unless
Thy other lord forbids, Voluptuousness :
And he may ask this civil question : Friend,
What dost thou make a shipboard ? to what end ?
Art thou of Bethlem’s noble college free ?
Stark, staring mad, that thou wouldst tempt the sea?
Italian philosopher, humanist and author Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) writing on the history of Florence (Italy) wrote the following:
Upon this, Philip considering that in all open wars with the Popes, he had constantly been a loser, and often in great danger of being utterly ruined, now resolved to proceed in another manner; and to have recourse to stratagem. In consequence of which, he pretended to submit, and entered into a treaty of reconciliation with the Pope: but whilst it was carrying on, he privately sent Sciarra into Italy, who arriving at Anagni (where the Pope then resided) gathered his friends together in the night, seized upon his Holinesses person, and made him prisoner. And though he was set at liberty again by the people of that town, yet such was his rage and indignation at this disgrace, that it drove him stark mad, and he died soon after it
And in 1489, English poet and dramatic author John Skelton used the phrase “stark mad” in his elegy on Henry, the 4th Earl of Northumberland. It is prefaced with, “Skelton Laureat upon the dolorous dethe and much lamentable chaunce of the moost honorable Erle of Northumberlande.” The poem, published on April 28, 1489 reads in part:
He was envyronde aboute on every syde
Withe his enemys, that were stark mad, and wode;
Yet whils he stode he gave them woundes wyde;
Alas for routhe! what thouche his mynde were goode,
His corage manly, yet ther he shed hys bloode!
All left alone, alas! he fawte in vayne;
For cruelly amonge them ther he was slayne.
The word “stark” is from the Old English word stearc which means “stiff, strong” The meaning later associated with it of “utter, sheer, complete” was first recorded around 1400 . The word was later used in such phrases as “stark dead” and “stark mad” in the late 1300s with stark used as an adjective to intensify the noun.
The word “raving” is from the Latin word rabidus from rabere which means “to be mad, to rave.” It, too, was used as an adjective to intensify the noun. And the word mad is from the Old English word gemædde which means “out of one’s mind.”
And so, it’s easy to understand how “stark raving mad” came about and why it’s still very much in use in today’s vocabulary.