September 30, 2013

Case File #013.09.30: DELIRIUM

If we trace the noun delirium all the way back to its earliest tangible roots, we find that it started with the Latin prepositional phrase de lire, which meant “from the furrow” or “off the track.” The ancient Romans transformed the phrase into the verb deliriare, which initially meant “to wander from the furrow (while plowing)” but was later used figuratively to mean “to deviate from the rational or emotional norm” or “to become deranged,” and from this they derived the Latin noun delirium, meaning “insanity.” When the noun passed directly into English circa 1590, the meaning was softened a bit to “a temporary state of acute mental or emotional instability resulting from high fever, intoxication, shock, or other such causes,” but the informal sense in which delirium is softened even further to “frenzied excitement” or “ecstasy”—as in, for example, The sports fans jumped about in delirium after their team's championship victory —didn't appear until the mid-nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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