Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Etymology of "Batshit Crazy"


The term “batshit crazy” has had a resurgence of late, largely born of the communication style of Republican presidential candidates during the recent debates. It has been kicked around by various members of the pundit class, and was made famous again most recently in that context by Lindsay Graham at a National Press Club dinner when he said in reference to the GOP lining up behind Donald Trump, “My party has gone batshit crazy.”

I rather like the term “batshit crazy.” It has a fantastic ring to it and telegraphs very well the notion that the individual, group or entity being described is indeed not your common or garden crazy, but rather a level beyond madness’s ordinary limits.

Alas, its etymology does not point where I had hoped it would point. I was praying that a particular form of insanity descended upon spelunkers due to repeated inhalation of bat guano, but there appear only to be anecdotal citations in that direction, perhaps others who likewise wished it were so. It seemed the Occum’s razor for me, as in my native New England, the phrase, “crazier than a shit house rat” enjoys some popularity and indeed owes its etymology to the syndrome of rats who haunt poorly maintained outhouses being afflicted with violent and unpredictable personalities.

The term “batshit” began to appear as an equivalent to “bullshit” in military jargon of the 1950s, even showing up in that context in some printed material. Its attachment to “crazy” was not seen at that time, but it bears mentioning, as that coining of "batshit" as a single word appears to be its first, and documentation on it is solid.

An old expression for madness was “bats in the belfry,” the belfry of a church representing the head of a person, with the idea being that one’s mind was full of blind, winged night rodents, a metaphor of madness that carries with it the charm of grotesquerie, like a story by Poe or a drawing by Edward Gorey. The best guess then at the evolution of “batshit crazy” seems to be a gradual profaning of "bats in the belfry" via the incorporation of the previously familiar term “batshit” from its 1950s military usage.  And in this way, the expression as we know it stumbled to its feet.

There is a character in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove named Colonel “Bat” Guano (1964), an obvious reference to “batshit,” and Hunter S. Thompson used the phrase “batshit insane” in the Fear and Loathing books in the early 1970s. Between those two high-profile cultural usages, “batshit,” “batshit crazy,” and “batshit insane” came into common parlance, and have had waxing and waning popularity since, but thanks in no small part to the 2016 presidential race, all three are back and ready for action.