Fred R. Shapiro’s regular “You Can Quote Them” feature for the Yale Alumni Magazine is always a pleasure, and this month’s column has a spectacularly unexpected explanation for a familiar phrase:

Searchable collections of historical texts can lead to discoveries that transform our understanding of the provenance of certain words, phrases, and quotations. So it is with the term lunatic fringe.
In the Yale Book of Quotations, I gave the standard sourcing for this political/social expression:

[Of an international exhibition of modern art:] The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.
—Theodore Roosevelt, Outlook, March 29, 1913

More recently, I searched for lunatic fringe in historical databases. To my surprise, I found many uses from before 1913—all in a very different sense from Roosevelt’s. Here are a few:

“The girls!” exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the “lunatic fringe” of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead.
Oliver Optic’s Magazine, February 1874
“LUNATIC Fringe” is the name given to the fashion of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang down over the forehead.
Wheeling Daily Register, July 24, 1875
The “lunatic fringe” is still the mode in New York hair-dressing.
Chicago Inter Ocean, May 24, 1876

It appears, then, that Teddy Roosevelt was playing on an existing phrase. His usage was a metaphorical extension of an expression previously applied to bangs—evidently, bangs that were considered outré. Fringe is still used in Britain for bangs, but the usage has been abandoned for so long in the United States that lexicographers were completely unaware of the coiffure-related prehistory of lunatic fringe.

And so a clever pun became a boring cliché of political discourse.


  1. “And so a clever pun became a boring cliché of political discourse.”
    Who could ever predict that such thing is possible? [head explodes]

  2. Another American example from the 20th century might be the all but canonical name for Germany’s last offensive of World War II, “the battle of the bulge.” This attack did in fact create a bulge in the American front, but (IIRC) the name came from a diet book of the era. That is: first came the war, then came a non-war book with a military metaphor in its title, then came a reversal of the metaphor back from figurative battle to real battle.

  3. I speak Australian English and have only ever used or heard the term “fringe” for this hairstyle. However, I am a 60 year old male so I might be out of touch with current usage.
    I have a vague idea that the word “bang” is used for something like a pigtail down under, but I’m not absolutely sure. By the way, is “bangs” the singular, and if so what is the plural?
    I found this website which purports to provide the etymology for “bangs”. How credible is its assertion of a derivation from Old Norse banga meaning “to hammer”?

  4. David Marjanović says

    There’s a fruit fly* gene called fringe because mutations in it result in fringed larvae or something. Thanks to a gene duplication or three, fringe has at least two equivalents in, I think, vertebrates: radical fringe and lunatic fringe.
    Geneticists do this a lot. When fruit fly larvae look like hedgehogs, they have a mutation in the hedgehog gene; its three vertebrate equivalents are desert hedgehog, Indian hedgehog and Sonic hedgehog.
    * The species of vinegar fly in question used to be called Drosophila melanogaster. But I think you can already get used to Sophophora melanogaster.

  5. The probability of a witty remark being coined by an American President must be pretty low, so there must be a fair chance of someone else having first used “lunatic fringe” as a metaphor. Keep looking.

  6. Of course there are the slightly perverse sushi zealots–the tuna lick fringe.

  7. The probability of a witty remark being coined by an American President must be pretty low.
    No argument there, but remember that T. Roosevelt was the Sarah Palin of his day. He got the meaningless post of VP as a PR stunt and only became president because the real prez was assassinated.

  8. what is the plural?
    You wear bangs the way you wear trousers; it’s grammatically plural but semantically singular.
    Old Norse banga meaning “to hammer”?
    I believe that the story put about by as reputable a source as the OED is that “bangs” the human-head hairstyle got its name from “bang-cut” the horse-tail hairstyle, which in turn got its name from the familiar English word “bang” referring to various sorts of sudden violent action, which in turn is descended from an ON word for hammer.

  9. Gary @ “but remember that T. Roosevelt was the Sarah Palin of his day.”
    Either you greatly overestimate the competence of Ms. Palin or you are an ignoramus. The later having the higher degree of certitude.*&destination=us&currency=USD&binding=*&isbn=&keywords=&minprice=&maxprice=&mode=advanced&st=sr&ac=qr

  10. @Hozo: he was selected as VP for exactly the same reasons that SP was — as a sop to a wing (in his case the left wing) of his party, in the serene assurance that VPs don’t matter.
    I’m sure the book you recommend will tell you the same thing in more detail. Every book about him makes this point.

  11. @Hozo: and if you’d bother yourself to read what I wrote, you would realize that my point was that TR was an exception to the general run of American presidents, in that he might be capable of coming up with such a witticism.

  12. J. W. Brewer says

    So I recalled that the song of that name that was ubiquitious on AOR radio when I was in high school was by some dodgy Canadians (presumably influenced only indirectly by Roosevelt), but had not known that it was inspired by the concatenation of the guitarist having read a book about Raoul Wallenberg and secondarily being bummed out by the killing of John Lennon. Note the interesting point in terms of the TR quote that back then one could simultaneously be a Capital-P Progressive and also be dismissive of new-fangled art in a very Col. Blimp-ish sort of way.

  13. That’s traditional for left-wingers; the Bolsheviks notoriously hated the experimental art that briefly flourished after the revolution and promoted “realist” writing and art and pleasant-sounding music.

  14. LH (and commenters) do you know this Doris Lessing NYTimes piece from 1992?

  15. J. W. Brewer says

    Well, I’m a big big non-admirer of T. Roosevelt and his legacy in American politics, but even I would hesitate to compare him to the Bolsheviki. Let’s see, in 1912 maybe you could call him by analogy the SR candidate, positioned in between the Kadet Taft and the Menshevik Wilson.
    But it’s certainly true if you move forward two decades that the more Bolshevik-friendly FDR administration promoted reasonably Soviet-style art of a very non-avant-garde nature in all those awful WPA murals.

  16. That’s traditional for left-wingers; the Bolsheviks notoriously hated the experimental art that briefly flourished after the revolution and promoted “realist” writing and art and pleasant-sounding music.
    I assume your being tongue in cheek – TR was hardly a “left winger” by any measuring stick. And in a Russian context the Bolsheviks (Stalin faction anyway) were arguably conservative reactionaries in many ways – they reimposed Great Russian nationalism, collective agriculture and subordination of industry to the State – all in reaction to the liberalizing trends in society post Alexander II.

  17. an international exhibition of modern art
    Not just any old exhibition, but the first Armory Show. Roosevelt’s review is of some art historical significance. Barbara Rose (in a chapter whose quotation is the “lunatic fringe” one), “The exhibition which Roosevelt viewed with such mixed feelings was the most important event in the history of American modernism.”

  18. I assume your being tongue in cheek – TR was hardly a “left winger” by any measuring stick.
    Well, half and half. Of course you’re right about TR, but there is a sad tendency for political progressives to be esthetic reactionaries.

  19. “Searchable collections of historical texts can lead to discoveries that transform our understanding of the provenance of certain words, phrases, and quotations. So it is with the term lunatic fringe”
    someone who understands clav-o-meta search methodology.

  20. John Emerson says

    Gary, your Palin / Roosevelt analogy is one of the worst I’ve ever heard.

  21. John Emerson says

    Roosevelt was a self-aggrandizing egomaniac who, because of his difficulties with the Republican stalwarts (corrupt conservatives), hitched a ride on the rather ill-defined and disorganized progressive movement to run for president in 1912. He was not a progressive before or after this run. The most prominent progressive, LaFollete, backed Wilson, who was not really a progressive either. Wilson and Roosevelt were more conservative than the progressives, who were themselves not really left wing.
    TR was the author of many books and spoke pungently, and it’s not surprising that he coined a phrase.

  22. And recall that the inauguration was still on March 4 back in 1913.

  23. Thanks for pointing out Barbara Rose & the first Armory Show, M.

  24. Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in one of her Little House books of cutting her hair in a lunatic fringe.
    They Might Be Giants have a song about Bangs. Called, “Bangs.”

  25. It’s not about Lester Bangs? Too bad.

  26. Bangs has always puzzled me as an expression, as a Briton I’d say “a fringe”, and to me it is so obviously a single item that I’m puzzled as to how Americans managed to come up with the plural. Obviously trousers and scissors got their monikers from their intrinsic duality, but bangs?
    Perhaps the fringe was initially parted centrally creating a left bang and a right bang, a style which would in many parts of England be indelicately called “a fanny parting” (check what fanny means in the UK to see just how indelicate…)

  27. Here in the UK, a few hairdressers’ go by “Lunatic Fringe” as a pun on Roosevelt’s sense of the phrase. Odd to think that they may essentially just be naming themselves after a hairstyle.

  28. Errr … but why was the hairstyle called a “lunatic fringe” in the first place? Because you looked like a right loony if you had one? Because that’s how female inmates of lunatic asylums had their hair cut? Because the frame of hair around the face is crescent-shaped, like the moon? As one puzzle is solved, so another takes its place …

  29. Didn’t Teddy Roosevelt coin “bully pulpit” and “big stick”? I thought presidents in those days wrote their own speeches.

  30. No further forward on the origins of “lunatic fringe”, but I have found an interesting report from a 19th century English newspaper showing that Oscar Wilde wore one (Middlesbrough, for non-UK readers, is probably the equivalent of Scranton, Pennsylvania):
    The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Friday, November 30, 1883
    A large and fashionable audience assembled at the Oddfellows’ Hall, Middlesbrough on Thursday evening to hear Mr Oscar Wilde deliver a lecture on his “Personal Impressions of America” … It was evident that many of those who went to hear him last night did so more from a feeling of curiosity than anything else. The wanted to see what the much-talked-of “Oscar” was like … Mr Wilde was attrired in evening dress, with black satin waistcoat … his cuffs were bought down below the coat sleeves and turned over them. He wore patent-leather “pumps”, a black “choker” necktie, with stand-up collar – not so high as a “masher” – and his curly locks were brought down in the shape of a “lunatic fringe” over the forehead. Altogether his general “get up” had a decided smack of dandyism about it.
    And here’s an amusing rant from the New York Times, reprinted in the Dundee Courier & Argus from Scotland on October 13 1879 (can’t find the original in the NYT – electronic archives are far from infallible)
    That many of the prevalent fashions are extremely unbecoming it is well-nigh useless to mention. Everybody knows this except the women who adopt them. They may know it too; but they are so set on fashion that some of them would rather be though fashionable than good-looking. Of all the positively ugly modes now current, the mode of wearing the hair ‘banged’, or combed down over the brow and cut square, is perhaps the ugliest. It had its origins, if we mistake not, in the demi-monde of Paris, where so many fashions arise; was copied in England, particularly in london, and was finally imitated here. It clearly betrays its origins, and is worthy thereof; for it gives to any woman a bold, impudent, hard look, such as comports with the character, or lack of character, of its originators. Banged hair is particularly affected by burlesque and variety actresses … there has never been a human creature who was not deteriorated by this odious style of wearing the hair … Women of really good taste, who have individuality and ideas of their own, do not bang. New York Times

  31. And nobody complained about “bang” as a verb? Those were the days.

  32. can’t find the original in the NYT
    August 30, 1879.

  33. I’m telling you, MMcM can find anything. Next time I’m searching for the flashlight that used to be right on that shelf over there, I’ll give him a call.

  34. It seems clear to me that bangs, the hairstyle, are so called because of the individual wisps of hair which constitute it, and that it is just as legitimate a pluralia tantum as scissors, pants. Indeed, fringe is based on the same metaphor, as the fringe of a carpet consists of individual lengths of twisted fiber extending from the main mat. That does not extend to calling an individual wisp a bang, still less to a denominal verb, in the usage of anyone alive today.

    (I remember reading a story several decades ago about someone who is terribly ashamed of his name, which to me has always seemed the ultimate in self-degradation. He mentions at one point that he wishes he had the name of a co-worker he knows slightly named Lars Bang. When I read that, I remember guffawing at the ludicrous implications of “Bang” as a surname, and who might more rightly be laughing at whose name. Having told this story, I will probably be informed by someone that Bang is a most aristocratic, or at least haut-bourgeois, name in Denmark or wherever, but I don’t care: to me it is the word an explosion says, period.)

  35. Kingsley Amis’s One Fat Englishman has a Danish couple surnamed Bang. Probably not accidental at all.

  36. And then there’s the great Lester Bangs.

  37. In Danish, Bang as a surname has the ‘normal’ short-vowel intonation, while that of the interjection bang! is different — the closest I can come is [bɑŋ̊] vs. [bɑŋ]. The same kind of difference exists between short vowel imperfects and imperatives where they otherwise coincide, like kom vs kom!.

    There are 3779 people with the surname Bang in Denmark as of 2017, so it’s quite unremarkable. Of course people will use the opportunity for punning, but it’s not distracting.

  38. Lester’s family is English in Origin. Perhaps related to Banks?

  39. And of course my brain slipped a gear there, the surname has stød and the interjection doesn’t. Nothing to see here, move along.

  40. Of course I didn’t know stød from kød in those days.

  41. David Marjanović says
  42. And Herman Bang is/was inflicted on all Danes in 8th grade or so. Actually I quite enjoyed the novel we read, as far as I remember.

    At a guess the surname is from the adjective bange = ‘scared’, from German, from bi-ango with the root of Angst, so only coincidentally spelled like the interjection. (And according to my Sprachgefühl they are two unlinked lexical entries).

  43. The story about Lars Bang is Donald Barthelme’s “Views of My Father Weeping.”

  44. Dave Wilton has posted about the phrase, including this supposed early use in the transferred sense in an editorial published in Connecticut’s Daily Constitution of 26 July 1876:

    “Lunatic fringe,” is the term applied now-a-days to the short cropped hair so often seen dangling on a lady’s forehead. But Tilden with a “hard-money” label dangling on his breast, a “soft-money” label on his back, with “reform” painted on his forehead, “free schools” swinging from one ear, for the Protestant “church schools,” and from the other for the Catholic, with one hand filled with “pudding-tickets” to make the illegal vote of New York City overcome the honest vote of the State, and other had filled with stolen Western town and county railroad subscriptions, is the most be-“fringed” spectacle now on exhibition.

    But as I wrote in the discussion thread:

    I disagree with your characterization of the 1876 quote, and it seems to me you’re so convinced of the “political uses of lunatic fringe between 1876 and 1913 that have yet to be found” that you’re automatically slotting this quote into that imaginary continuum. In fact, this use has nothing to do with the Roosevelt one; the editorial is not about a group of “effervescent, vociferous extremists” but is about a single man, a presidential candidate, and the term “lunatic fringe” is used as part of a group of elements that signify not extremism but expediency: look at all these wildly inconsistent ideas he’s spouting! If the editorial had ended “is the most be-‘labeled’ spectacle now on exhibition,” would you consider that an important stage in the semantic development of the word label? This is a one-off metaphor that is irrelevant to the modern use of the term unless and until someone turns up a trail of citations leading convincingly from the 1876 editorial to TR, which I consider extremely unlikely.

  45. Pia Bang is the second-most famous Danish-born Irish fashion designer.

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