Friday, April 22, 2011

The lunatic fringe again

As my wife Elaine remembered and confirmed last night, “lunatic fringe” first referred to hair. She remembered what Ma says in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie (1941):

“And I can’t think that a lunatic fringe is the most becoming way to do your hair. It makes any girl’s ears appear larger to comb the hair up back of them and to have that mat of bangs above the forehead.”
Fred Shapiro explains it all:
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.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the phrase to another 1913 Roosevelt sentence: “There is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement.” Or backward.

A related post
Lunatic fringe

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