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UNEASE about the possible effect on humans of bovine spongiforma encephalopathy must have been greatly intensified by the stark popular name for it. If a mad dog - what the Romans magniloquently called a canis furibundus - can transmit rabies, what terrors can be expected of a mad cow?

Applied to human beings, mad is generally harmless so long as it suggests only that they are enthusiastic or eccentric, or perhaps angry, a meaning we exported to America with the Pilgrim Fathers. But if someone is actually raving, we shrink from the word and hasten to call them something else. ("Quite inappropriate", wrote the OED's editors in a warning note in 1904, "in referring sympathetically to an insane person as the subject of affliction.") I am surprised that the animal rights movement, which thinks animals are only fur-covered people and has already declared against the demeaning word "pets" (in-house companions if you don't mind), has not yet put in a plea for mentally disturbed cow disease.

From its early days mad could also mean frantic or overexcited, as said of those who make mad rushes to catch trains, or of people like the chatterer in the 1950-ish Ronald Searle cartoon who declared that abstract paintings "make me giggle like a little mad thing", a modish phrase at that time. This reminds me that chronically overexcited children are identified by educationists as suffering from "hyperactivity", but I understand that it is now thought kinder to call it Attention Deficiency Disorder, or ADD.

A disturbing thing for those who are worried about mad cow disease is that the original meaning of mad is unconsciously transferred to humans (where it's "quite inappropriate") along with the condition itself. Others, as they tuck into their steaks, will say it's all in the mind.

Nicholas Bagnall