Not long ago I embarked upon reading Peter Ackroyd’s huge book London. The Autobiography and despite its somewhat lofty language it’s proving to be a good read. At some point I was even rewarded with a linguistic revelation about the origin of the phrase ”barking mad‘, which is now used informally to say that someone is totally crazy.
According to Ackroyd (almost a pun!), it originates from ‘a refuge for the insane at Barking’, which presumably existed in this area of London in medieval times.
Not so fast…
Actually, Ackroyd’s suggestion is almost universally dismissed. For instance, Michael Quinion, the author of Port Out, Starboard Home: The Fascinating Stories We Tell About the words We Use writes that ‘the problem with Mr Ackroyd’s idea is that the evidence strongly suggests the term is nothing like so old as that’. He argues that the earliest reference dates back to 1965, not the middle ages.
Quinion thinks that ‘the idea behind the saying is most likely that the person referred to is so deranged that he or she barks like a dog, or resembles a mad dog, or one that howls at the full moon’.
This lack of agreement on the etymology doesn’t surprise me at all and it shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying some nice examples of how the phrase is used:
– But it is quite consistent with Santander in Britain being in rude health for it also to be little short of barking mad for Santander as group to be acquiring yet more assets and liabilities anywhere – including the UK – at a moment when Spain as an economy is an evolving and dangerous crisis (BBC).
– Kevin Geoghegan, who has been reporting from Cannes for the BBC News website, was among those impressed by Holy Motors. The film, he wrote in his reporter’s diary, is “utterly, barking, slap-me-on-the-face-with-a-wet-fish, mad” (BBC).
– Mr Wilders’s anti-immigrant party has nine seats in parliament, too few to affect the government’s fairly tolerant policy towards the country’s Muslim minority. But he has jabbed his finger into several sore spots. He has publicly questioned the loyalty of two cabinet members with dual nationality (ie, Turkish and Moroccan as well as Dutch). He called a third minister “barking mad” because of her liberal integration policies. And he has demanded a ban on immigration from Muslim countries (The Economist).