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Lunatic is an antiquated term referring to a person who is considered as mentally ill, dangerous, foolish, unpredictable, or crazy—conditions once attributed to lunacy. The word derives from lunaticus meaning "of the moon" or "moonstruck"; the term was once commonly used in law.[1]


The horoscope of a "Lunatic" according to an astrologer who describes how the positions of the planets Saturn and Mars with respect to the moon are the cause of "diseases of the mind".[2]

The term "lunatic" derives from the Latin word lunaticus, which originally referred mainly to epilepsy and madness, as diseases thought to be caused by the moon.[3][4]KJV records "lunatick" in Mt 17:15 and Mt 4:24. By the fourth and fifth centuries[clarification needed] astrologers were commonly using the term to refer to neurological and psychiatric diseases.[3] Philosophers such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder argued that the full moon induced insane individuals with bipolar disorder by providing light during nights which would otherwise have been dark, and affecting susceptible individuals through the well-known route of sleep deprivation.[5][clarification needed] Until at least 1700, it was also a common belief that the moon influenced fevers, rheumatism, episodes of epilepsy and other diseases.[6]

Use of the term "lunatic" in legislation[edit]

In the jurisdiction of England and Wales the Lunacy Acts 1890–1922 referred to "lunatics", but the Mental Treatment Act 1930 changed the legal term to "person of unsound mind", an expression which was replaced under the Mental Health Act 1959 by "mental illness". "Person of unsound mind" was the term used in 1950 in the English version of the European Convention on Human Rights as one of the types of person who could be deprived of liberty by a judicial process. The 1930 Act also replaced the term "asylum" with "mental hospital". Criminal lunatics became Broadmoor patients in 1948 under the National Health Service Act 1946.

On December 5, 2012, the US House of Representatives passed legislation approved earlier by the US Senate removing the word "lunatic" from all federal laws in the United States.[1] President Barack Obama signed this legislation into law on December 28, 2012.[7]

"Of unsound mind" or non compos mentis are alternatives to "lunatic", the most conspicuous term used for insanity in the law in the late 19th century.[8]

Lunar distance[edit]

The term lunatic was sometimes used to describe those who sought to discover a reliable method of determining longitude (before John Harrison developed the marine chronometer method of determining longitude, the main theory was the Method of Lunar Distances, advanced by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne); the artist William Hogarth portrayed a "longitude lunatic" in the eight scene of his 1733 work A Rake's Progress.[9] Twenty years later, though, Hogarth described John Harrison's H-1 chronometer as "one of the most exquisite movements ever made."[9]

Later, members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham called themselves lunaticks.[10] In an age with little street lighting, the society met on or near the night of the full moon.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sherman, Amy (17 December 2012). "Allen West said the House voted to remove the word 'lunatic' from federal law". PolitiFact. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  2. ^ Heydon, C. (1792). Astrology. The wisdom of Solomon in miniature, being a new doctrine of nativities, reduced to accuracy and certainty ... Also, a curious collection of nativities, never before published. London: printed for A. Hamilton. ISBN 9781170010471.
  3. ^ a b Riva, M. A.; Tremolizzo, L.; Spicci, M; Ferrarese, C; De Vito, G; Cesana, G. C.; Sironi, V. A. (January 2011). "The Disease of the Moon: The Linguistic and Pathological Evolution of the English Term "Lunatic"". Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 20 (1): 65–73. doi:10.1080/0964704X.2010.481101.
  4. ^ J., J., T., Frey,Rotton,& Barry (1979). "The effects of the full moon on human behavior: Yet another failure to replicate". The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. 103(2): 159–162.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ The Moon and madness reconsidered Journal of Affective Disorders, June, 1999
  6. ^ Harrison, Mark (2000). "From medical astrology to medical astronomy: sol-lunar and planetary theories of disease in British medicine, c. 1700–1850". The British Journal for the History of Science. 33 (1): 25–48. doi:10.1017/S0007087499003854.
  7. ^ "Statement by the Press Secretary on H.J. Res. 122, H.R. 3477, H.R. 3783, H.R. 3870, H.R. 3912, H.R. 5738, H.R. 5837, H.R. 5954, H.R. 6116, H.R. 6223, S. 285, S. 1379, S. 2170, S. 2367, S. 3193, S. 3311, S. 3315, S. 3564, and S. 3642". Office of the Press Secretary; the White House. December 28, 2012. Retrieved 27 October 2013.
  8. ^ "Lunacy". The American Cyclopædia. 1879.
  9. ^ a b Sobel, Dava (2010). Longitude (10th anniversary ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 87. ISBN 0802799671.
  10. ^ Ian Wylie. "Coleridge and the Lunaticks". In Gravil, Richard; Lefebure, Molly (eds.). The Coleridge Connection: Essays for Thomas McFarland. 1990: Springer. pp. 25–26.
  11. ^ "Transactions and Proceedings". 22-25. Birmingham, England: Birmingham Archaeological Society. 1897: 26. Retrieved 3 February 2017.

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