PSYCHOPATH.

Reading this New Yorker piece by John Seabrook, I hit the sentence “The word ‘psychopath’ (literally, ‘suffering soul’) was coined in Germany in the eighteen-eighties” and of course turned immediately to the OED, where I found that the entry had been revised as recently as September of last year. It says “after PSYCHOPATHIC adj., PSYCHOPATHY n. Compare Russian psixopat (1888 or earlier), French psychopathe (1894), German Psychopath (1898 or earlier).” I was naturally interested to see the earliest attested form was Russian, and a little googling got me this Russian webpage (“Диссоциальное расстройство личности”), which says “по данным О. В. Кербикова (1955) в России термин «психопат» был впервые употреблен И. М. Балинским в 1884 г. во время выступления в суде по делу некоей Семеновой” [according to O. V. Kerbikov (1955), in Russia the term psikhopat was first used by I. M. Balinsky in 1884 in his appearance in court in the case of one Semenova]. The first OED cite supports Balinsky’s priority: 1885 Pall Mall Gaz. 21 Jan. 3/2 “For the benefit of those who are as yet ignorant of the meaning of psychopathy.. we give M. Balinsky’s [sc. a Russian psychiatrist] explanation of the new malady. ‘The psychopath.. is a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science… Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath.’” It would be nice to have an exact cite for Balinsky’s original use; at any rate, Seabrook seems to be incorrect in claiming it was coined in Germany. The terms it was based on, however—psychopathic and psychopathy—are in fact of German origin (psychopathisch dates back to 1845).
Update. In this thread, LH reader hilding very kindly provided the text of Balinsky’s statement: “Психопат тип, лишь недавно установленный в медицинской науке.” Now if only we could find an earlier cite!

Comments

  1. It’s always fascinating to me which bits of psychological terminology “catch” as everyday language.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    The terms it was based on, however—psychopathic and psychopathy—are in fact of German origin (psychopathisch dates back to 1845).
    I know next to nothing about this and there’s nothing in German wiki, but if psychopathisch dates back to 1845, isn’t it likely that psychopath would be from around that date too, even if the Pall Mall Gazette thought it recent forty years later?
    Did you know that Matthew Freud, g. grandson of the great man, is married to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter and they have children? Scary. I’ll be dead by then.

  3. if psychopathisch dates back to 1845, isn’t it likely that psychopath would be from around that date too
    No, I assure you the OED would have run across it in the past century. It’s not unusual that it would take forty years or so for a noun to be created based on a newly coined adjective.

  4. AJP, if “psychopathic” means “relating to psychopathy”, then there’s no reason to assume the existence of a noun “psychopath” — any more than the word “pharmacologic” implies there’s a noun “pharmacolog(ue)”.

  5. John Emerson says:

    Max Born (Nobel Prize-winning physicist) is Olivia Newton-John’s grandfather.

  6. There has always tension between psychopath as occasionally associated with psychopathology ([the study of] “mental disorders”) and as more properly associated with psychopathy (a specific diagnosis, within the domain of psychopathology). Psychopath is, partly for this very reason, deprecated in psychonosological circles. For better or worse the terms sociopath and sociopathy are more in favour; but the whole field is muddy and unsettled.

  7. O, and the linked article discusses sociopathy too, I see. But it doesn’t give the reason that I adduce for the shift.

  8. I wonder if the Russian origin also explains the odd formation of the word. If it came from German, it would be more likely to be Psychopathiker (like Schizophreniker) in German, resulting in psychopathic as a noun in Emglish.

  9. It would be interesting to know more about Semenova, whoever she was, if she really is the world’s first psychopath. If British newspapers picked up on the case it must have been fairly interesting.

  10. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I wonder if the Russian origin also explains the odd formation of the word.
    Probably the Russians were in Greece before they went on to Rome.

  11. michael farris says:

    Going off on a tangeant. I think it’s interesting that meteopathy and meteopath, referring to those physically affected by changes in weather or certain kinds of weather, don’t seem to be very well established in English yet (from what I find in google) though they’re common in a number of other European languages.

  12. A.J.P. Crown says:

    the whole field is muddy and unsettled.
    I remember once telling a psychiatrist that I thought so-and-so was a psychopath, and he smiled and told me that ‘we doctors’ have a very precise definition for the word. It turned out we meant the same thing, but now I wonder if this muddiness is what he was talking about. I think ‘psychopath’ is a much better word than ‘sociopath’. Probably thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, it’s more suggestive of doom. ‘Sociopath’ just sounds like an annoying person you met at a party.

  13. michael farris says:

    My common usage defintitions (not to be confused with anything a professional would recognize or approve of) of psychopath and sociopath are not the same thing at all.
    Psychopaths have extremely low (or no) impulse control on their own behavior and don’t recognize social boundaries. They can be characterized by unpredictable behavior that can be hazardous to themselves and others.
    A sociopath knows social boundaries and violates them selectively counting on others to not follow suit. There is a basic lack of empathy and no inhibitions on using and manipulating others for their own ends.
    Again, these are what the words mean to me when used in everyday speech or writing and not to be confused with (or understood as challenging) specialist understanding of the issues involved.

  14. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Nabokov in his book on Gogol says,

    (In 1854) second rate German and French general practioners still dominated the scene, for the splended school of great Russian physicians was yet in the making…Some fifteen years before, Pushkin, with a bullet in his enrails, had been given medical assistance good for a constipated child.

  15. think it’s interesting that meteopathy and meteopath… don’t seem to be very well established in English yet
    By “not very well established” I take it you mean “completely nonexistent.” Meteopath gets no Google hits whatever, and meteopathy exists only in explanations of how parallel words are used in other languages and badly translated titles of technical articles (e.g., this one: “[Interval hypoxic training as a method of prophylaxis of meteopathic reactions in patients with bronchial asthma: guide for physicians],” from the Russian journal Voprosy kurortologii, fizioterapii, i lechebnoi fizicheskoi kultury).

  16. if psychopathisch dates back to 1845, isn’t it likely that psychopath would be from around that date too
    My sOED notes (without further explanation) that ‘psychopathy’ originally meant simply ‘mental illness’.
    It seems a reasonable hypothesis, therefore, that ‘psychopathisch’ originally likewise had a broader sense – and that the contemporary meaning of ‘psychopathy’ as ‘the condition suffered by psychopaths’ actually came after the identification of this condition and Balinsky’s consequent coining.
    That’s speculation on my part, though.

  17. michael farris says:

    By “not very well established” I take it you mean “completely nonexistent.”
    Well I was erring on the side of caution. I would also say that if even if meteopathic “exists only in explanations of how parallel words are used in other languages and badly translated titles of technical articles” then it’s not completely nonexistent and is at least a (very) marginal word.

  18. I think it’s interesting that meteopathy and meteopath, referring to those physically affected by changes in weather or certain kinds of weather, don’t seem to be very well established in English yet
    That’s because, in the U.S. at least, people are not pathologically (!) afraid of the Föhn or the mistral or of drafts in general. There’s SAD, but that’s about it.

  19. Max Born (Nobel Prize-winning physicist) is Olivia Newton-John’s grandfather.
    So that’s why she’s nicknamed “Olivia Neutron Bomb”.

  20. Born, not Teller!
    I seem to recall that Havelock-Ellis disliked the word “homosexual” for being a mishmash of Greek and Latin. But he wasn’t a bitchabout it.
    He was the first to insist that “inversion” as he called it, wasn’t an illness (I think).

  21. komfo,amonan says:

    Is there a difference between meteopathy and meteoropathy? A Greek-speaking coiner would, I think, choose the latter, which does get some ghits.

  22. komfo,amonan says:

    Sili: Ah, I can’t stand mixed Greek/Latin coinages. They have a whiff of “I don’t know what I’m doing, but this sounds impressive”. Television. Sociopathy. I suppose they’re harmless.

  23. Is the piece itself worth reading?
    Did you know that Matthew Freud, g. grandson of the great man, is married to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter and they have children?
    I’m going to start warning everyone I know.

  24. Is the piece itself worth reading?
    If you’re interested in the subject, sure.

  25. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I’m going to start warning everyone I know.
    Yeah. They have about twenty years to build a fallout shelter. Granddad will have passed on by then, and they’ll have the money to… well, who knows what?

  26. David Harmon says:

    hjælmer:
    Wouldn’t “weather bones” and the like qualify? Those are pretty common over here…. If you haven’t heard the term, that’s when someone’s bones hurt in response to pressure changes. Often caused by an imperfectly-healed break, arthritis, or just by age.
    Also, the NYT parsed “psychopath” as “suffering soul” — given other medical usage of -path, wouldn’t it be more like “sick soul”?

  27. given other medical usage of -path, wouldn’t it be more like “sick soul”
    As I have said, it’s all mixed up. I too am suspicious of this “suffering soul” business. Of course the relevant Greek words import “suffering” (as in pathemata mathemata: “sufferings are lessons”), and doesn’t the same root branch forth into Latin as passio, whence our passion, passive, and so on? But the Greek quite naturally acquires the restricted sense of disease, and so we have pathology and later psychopathology. Psychopathy, on the other hand, works as if it were a formation from psychopath. I am as much against Latin-Greek hybrids as the next pedant; but I am sympathetic (or to latinise, compassionate) towards those preferring sociopath.

  28. John Emerson says:

    If it had been Iris Murdoch’s daughter, I would have been cool with that.
    The basic problem is that there should never have been a Rupert Murdoch, nor should he have fathered children, nor should any of his children have married. The Freud part is basically a red herring.

  29. John Emerson says:

    If it had been Iris Murdoch’s daughter, I would have been cool with that.
    The basic problem is that there should never have been a Rupert Murdoch, nor should he have fathered children, nor should any of his children have married. The Freud part is basically a red herring.

  30. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Sigmund Freud is a red herring. Let me write that one more time: Sigmund Freud is a red herring. But the Freuds are unbelievably good at whatever they turn their hand to. Matthew does PR.

  31. (looking for a thread with Cyrillic so I can pretend this is on topic)…for what’s it’s worth, I found the following in my spam filter, maybe should have left it there:

    Best russian security bulletin board. Welcome to http://coru.in/
    #
    Cult Of Russian Underground

  32. John Emerson says:

    Yes, I will agree that Sigmund may have been the best red herring of all time. And I say that in all seriousness.

  33. John Emerson says:

    Yes, I will agree that Sigmund may have been the best red herring of all time. And I say that in all seriousness.

  34. Ha!

  35. A.J.P. Crown says:

    No, no, no. I meant red herring in the sense of surrealism. Sigmund’s just out of style at the moment — we all would be after a century. He’ll be back, you’re going to love him.

  36. Zombie Sigmund! Instead of brains, he eats minds!

  37. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Here, for example, is one approach by the wonderful Lesley Chamberlain.

Speak Your Mind

*