28 October 2018

Why do we say “stir-crazy”?

Last night, I was texting one of my friends to check up on him and he mentioned that he was going “stir-crazy”. Apparently, he had been in his basement the whole day working on stuff. We decided to go out for a quick drink. In about half an hour, we were at his favorite cigar place. My first question to him was “Why do we say ‘stir-crazy'”? Why “stir”? Both of us laughed it away since we had not a clue.

Of course, “stir-crazy” means to go crazy or disoriented after being cooped up or confined to one place for a long time.

This morning, as I started researching it, I ran into a very interesting history of the phrase. I did not realize that it came into American English as a slang among prisoners all the way from the gypsy language local to Romania via a particular prison in England!!

This is what I have constructed so far:

The word “stir” actually refers to “prison”. In England, during the nineteenth century, “stir” was a slang term used to refer to prisons. In the earlier part of twentieth century, the same use of the word caught up in America – especially as a slang term used by prisoners.

The origin for that slang use lies in a particular prison in England – the notorious Newgate prison – which was referred to as “Start” by the prisoners. Eventually, all prisons were colloquially called “Start”.

The word “start” itself had nothing to do with the English word “start”. It was actually derived from the Romani word “stardo” meaning imprisoned. In fact, Romani – the language spoken by the gypsies in Romania area has a lot of words with that root to mean something to do with prisons – e.g. “sturiben” is a prison and “staripen” is to imprison.

The only part that I have not been able to connect is the following – while scholars agree that the root of the slang “start” is the Romani language, why did the Victorian age thieves land up with a Romani word. Were there many gypsies in the prison? Was there some other reason?

Well, I am going to stop my research before I go stir-crazy! Ha, ha!!

Posted October 28, 2018 by Rajib Roy in category "Word Play

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