'Lunatic' Removed from Federal Law, 'Idiot' Allowed to Stay

Here's your semantic government news that reads a bit like an Onion article of the day. But what's it all about, really?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

In your semantic government news that reads a bit like an Onion article, "the U.S. House voted to remove the term lunatic from sections of federal law, while the word idiot would remain," writes Bloomberg's Timothy R. Homan. This was a nearly unanimous vote, with Texas Republican Louie Gohmert casting the single no vote, with his own Onion-esque commentary.

But what's this all about, really? Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota sponsored the bill, "the 21st Century Language Act of 2012," to eliminate "references that contribute to the stigmatization of mental health conditions" in acts of Congress. In particular, this is a reaction to 1947 language that reads "The words insane and insane person and lunatic shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis," writes Homan; it would also remove the word from 1962 banking-law provisions. Virginia Representative Bobby Scott stated his agreement with the act, saying, "The term lunatic holds a place in antiquity and should no longer have a prominent place in our U.S. code." The American Psychiatric Association and other mental health organizations support this move too, lunatic being an outmoded and inaccurate word used to describe people with mental illness "because of the belief that lunar cycles have an impact on brain function," said Texas Republican Lamar Smith.

We're all for less stigmatization of mental and other illnesses (and greater support, and more accurate information, for and about sufferers of such). Yet I'd venture to guess that most people in 2012 probably aren't using the word lunatic to describe someone with actual mental illness at all, but instead are likely using it hyperbolically, as we do with crazy, to describe someone who behaves like, well, kind of an idiot (second meaning in Webster: "wildly foolish"). Of course, people aren't happy about that use of the word crazy, either; yet as language evolves and changes, it's a sure bet that words that once connected with one meaning may shift to mean something else. Does lunatic really need to be struck from the books, or is this just a well-intended but ultimately rather meaningless effort from the PC-language police? And how often is lunatic being used in Congress nowadays, anyway?

Perhaps a lot. As for that "no" vote from Gohmert, Homan writes,

“Not only should we not eliminate the word lunatic from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington,” Gohmert said in an e-mailed statement.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.