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The Independent Online

The man who took a machete into an infants' school (whoever he is) has been not unreasonably described as a maniac, since there is no other explanation for his behaviour, at least until the psychologists get to him. Whatever their diagnosis, however, this is one word the psychologists won't be using. It has long disappeared from their professional vocabulary.

If they wanted to talk about someone suffering from mania, which is what maniac used to mean, they would say he was manic; and manics, though often tiresome in various ways, are not generally murderous. Even the worst sufferers, the genuine psychotics, commit murder less often than other people. You would not expect to find them rushing about with a dangerous weapon. Hypomanics, the commonest and mildest sort, are more likely be wildly optimistic about life, and to talk too much.

Journalists who call killers maniacs are therefore being hopelessly inaccurate and out of date. in this context is merely one half of what Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Cliches called an idiomatic doublet, homicidal maniac being a throwback to the time when mania was medical science's term for any sort of madness or frenzy. Luckily, most of us laymen are as out of date as the journalists are and still get a buzz when we come across the word. Considering all the other uses to which mania and maniac have been put, many of them quite flippant, this is rather surprising. Though pyromania is a clinical condition and kleptomaniacs are certainly in need of treatment, balletomaniacs and bibliomaniacs cause amusement rather than horror. You'd think the vocabulary would have been wide enough to distinguish such different things. But serious lay terms for madness are few. Inadequate as it is, we seem to be stuck with maniac.

Nicholas Bagnall