Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Crazy As A Loon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 27, 2014

For those of you who don’t know, a loon is a bird found in the northern regions with a short tail, webbed feet, and a cry that sometimes sounds like a madman’s howling. Likewise, a loon is usually associated with a crazy or deranged person. So when someone is crazy as a loon, are they making sounds like the bird or are they acting like a madman?

When someone is said to be crazy as a loon, you can rest assured that the person speaking means the other person is mad as a March hare or crazy as a Mad Hatter or as crazy as a coot (another bird with a strange cry).

The idiom appeared twice in the book, “Peyton Place” by American author Grace Metalious (8 September 1924 – 25 February 1964) and published in 1956 by the Julian Messner & Company publishing house after being turned down by every other major fiction publisher in New York. The book became one of the most notorious (and best-selling) novels of the 1950s.

Critics panned the book but it stayed on the New York Best Sellers list for 59 weeks and sales of 8 million copies in hardcover and 12 million in paperbacks were only surpassed by sales of The Bible. The year after the book was published, Hollywood came knocking and in 1957 it was made into a movie starring Lana Turner as Alison MacKenzie. In 1961, a sequel was filmed as “Return toTo Peyton Place” which led to the prime time television soap opera, “Peyton Place” starring Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. This is one of the two passages where the idiom is found:

“I hate, loathe and despise you, Nellie Cross,” cried Allison hysterically. “You’re crazy as a loon. Crazier than Miss Hester Goodale, and I”m going to tell my mother not to let you come here to work any more.”

The Nellie remembered the second reason that she was unable to forgive Allison. Allison had said she was crazy. That was it, thought Nellie. She had known it was something wicked like that.

“You’re so crazy that you should be locked up in the asylum down at Concord,” Allison shouted, her voice high and rough with anger, and hurt, and tears. “I don’t blame Lucas for running off and leaving you. He knew that you’d end up in a padded cell down at Concord. And I hope you do. It would serve you just exactly right!”

In the play “The Fan” by Carlo Goldoni, produced at Venice in 1764 and translated into English by Henry B. Fuller, the idiom appears in Scene XIII between Crespino, the shoemaker, and Giannina, a lowly peasant girl. The translated version was copyrighted in 1925, and was in the Samuel French catalogue of plays.

GIANNINA [as above]
You’re crazy.

CRESPINO
Giannina!
[imitating EVARISTO]
Do not let your love for me fail, nor your kindness.

GIANNINA [as above]
You’re crazy, crazy, crazy!

CRESPINO
I crazy?

GIANNINA
Yes, you, you. You’re crazy, you’re crazy as a loon; and, on top of that, you’re — crazy!

In the “Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: A Work Of Universal Reference In All Departments Of Knowledge With A New Atlas Of The World in Ten Volumes” edited by William Dwight Whitney and Benjamin Eli Smith, and published in 1889, the idiom is included. Looning, as mentioned in the definition, is taken from a book by Walden Thoreau where he describes the sound a loon makes, and referring to it as “perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here.” The definition is found in Volume IV of the series as follows:

The wild actions of the loon in escaping danger and its dismal cry (see looning) suggest the idea of insanity; whence the common American similar “as crazy as a loon.”

When Volume II of “The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners” edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis, and published in Boston by Samuel G. Goodrich in 1828. In the story, “Leaves From A Colleger’s Album” written by the editor, Nathaniel Parker Willis, the following is found in the final paragraphs of the story.

Job turned to the titlepage. He had not understood a word of what he had read. Sure enough, it was a Universalist sermon. He gave Fritz a look of indescribable distress, hurled the sermon indignantly out of the cabin window, and rushed upon deck.

“Crazy! — crazy as a loon!” exclaimed the captain, as he stepped into the middle of the cabin to apologize. But we are Rochester, so,

Yours, my dear Tom,

Charles

It should be noted that the word loon was used to describe people who acted in a way that implied poor thinking. In the “Complete Works of Water Scott With A Biography and His Last Additions And Illustrations In Seven Volumes.” In Volume 4 by Sir Walter Scott (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) a number of loon references are made including this one in “The Fortunes Of Nigel” published in 29 May 1822.

“Haud up your head — haud up your head, and listen to your ain kind native Prince. If there is shame, man, it comes na empty-handed — there is siller to gild it — a gude tocher, and no that bad a pedigree; — if she has been a loon, it was your son made her sae, and he can make her an honest woman again.” 

Also in “The Fortunes In Nigel” this is found:

“Ay, ay — vera true,” exlaimed the caustic old courtier — “Impertinent coxcombs they are, that thus intrude themselves on the society of their betters; but your lordship kens how to gar them as gude — ye have the trick on’t. — They had a braw sport in the presence last Friday, how ye suld have routed a young shopkeeper, horse and foot, ta’en his spolia optima, and a’ the specie he had about him, down to the very silver buttons of his cloak, and sent him to graze with Nebuchadnezzer, Kind of Babylon. Muckle honour redounded to your lordship thereby. — We were tault the loon threw himself into the Thames in a fit of desperation. There’s enow of them behind — there was mair tint on Flodden-edge.”

What this proves is that the idiom crazy as a loon was understood in writings published in 1828 and that the word loon — as associated with crazy behavior — was found in writings published in 1822. Further research indicates that in Shakespearian times, the term loon was an abusive term that implied the person was a lunatic, rendered mad by the power of the moon.

That being said, the earliest published version of the idiom crazy as a loon that Idiomation was able to find dates back to 1828. However, because the expression’s meaning was easily understood in 1828, Idiomation places the expression to at least the generation prior to the published date, pegging it at 1800.

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3 Responses to “Crazy As A Loon”

  1. mutanatia said

    Is this the same “Peyton Place” alluded to in Billy Joe’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” Also, when are the centuries or decades in which phrases spread the fastest? The slowest?

  2. You’ll find that as the world becomes more connected and the populus becomes more educated, idioms spread faster and faster. Sayings that are created in today’s world that is social media connected and where formal education is a standard in almost every country will travel faster than saying that were created back when only a select few could read and news traveled by way of “distant” travelers who came from a few hundred miles away.

  3. […] you can discover here, the expression “crazy as a loon” has been uttered for many […]

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