or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Out of Sorts

The TV channel Bravo, bless 'em, is showing Law & Order, the original series, in chronological order. Last Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, they showed "Seed", uncontestably the best episode from the excellent Season 5. A deranged woman walks into the bank in which her husband works, screaming that he killed her baby. She pulls out a gun, two shots are fired, and the mystery is off and running, with at least one completely unexpected (and yet organic) plot twist per act. It's amazingly well written.

When I was trying to describe this to Jim, I used the word "deranged", just as I did above, and then afterwards it occurred to me that "derange" is a pretty odd word. The prefix "de-" often denotes the removal or negation of something: to deprive, for instance, is to remove something from the (private) possession of someone. What is the range that an unbalanced and out-of-control person has lost or been deprived of?

Well, first things first: the "de-" in "derange" isn't really a "de-", but a "dis-", abbreviated to help the word flow better. "Dis-" isn't a negation, precisely, but instead generally means "apart" or "away". The range isn't taken away; it's just broken apart, thrown out of whack.

And the range, in this case, is actually related to the etymologically identical "rank", which gives the game away. If all your mental processes are in good order, you're sane; but if they're out of line, disarrayed, jumbled, then you're mad. Deranged. "Range" comes from Old French "renge", which itself comes from "renc", the source of "rank".

Another word which means more or less the same thing as, and is structured in the same way as, "deranged" is "demented". The thing that's run off the rails is literally the mind: the "-ment-" is the same as that of "mental", from Latin "mens", "mind". You may have heard the word in the legal term "mens rea", "guilty mind", one of the elements of a crime. You may even have heard it on Law & Order.


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