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How long has looney been used as an abbreviation of lunatic? Is it a recent addition or something substantially older?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

The word loony has an entry in EtymOnline. It says:

1853, Amer.Eng., short for lunatic, but also infl. by loon (2), which is noted for its wild cry and method of escaping from danger. Slang loony bin "insane asylum" is from 1919. Looney left in ref. to holders of political views felt to be extreme is from 1977.

However, the OED disagrees and instead dates the term to 1872, from the short story "An Heiress of Red Dog" by Bret Harte. The story says,

You're that looney sort of chap that lives over yonder, ain't ye?

I'm more inclined to believe the OED (thank you Nicholas for bringing this up!), so with a date of 1872 the phrase is not substantially old.

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I don't know where EtymOnline gets the 1853 date (and I'm not saying it's wrong), but the earliest citation in the OED is from 1872, in Bret Harte's short story "An Heiress of Red Dog": "You're that looney sort of chap that lives over yonder, ain't ye?" The story can be read online here: readbookonline.net/readOnLine/13495 – Nicholas Aug 14 '11 at 2:26
I edited my answer -- thank you for providing me with what I think is a much more accurate source. – simchona Aug 14 '11 at 2:31

Here's some references older than EtymOnline's 1853. I think they're are used as an abbreviation of lunatic.

The cabinet of instruction,literature,and amusement: Volume 1, 1829:

A country looney, soft as boiled peas, went to a neighboring village one Sunday last autumn, partly on business and partly on pleasure. As Sunday is Cupid's market day, he, to his inexpressible joy, fell in with a charming damsel, ...

Sea songs, tales, etc. by Ned Halyard, 1849:

What's done is done, — and I am done

Brown by a thundering looney ;

By jove, it would be capital sport

If the dish'd could run off with the spooney.

Here's some references older than the OED's 1872, which are definitely abbreviations of lunatic.

Advocate and family guardian, Volume 31, 1865:

Well, if that ain't looney ; I declare, girls are always getting some crochet or other in their heads," said Harry, contemptuously. " If they never get a worse oue than this," said Mrs. Lane, " there's not much harm done.

Harper's magazine: Volume 35, 1867:

I told him he was a looney to suggest it, and went away seriously contemplating the idea of changing my banker.

The mimic stage: a series of dramas, comedies, burlesques, and farces, for public exhibitions and private theatricals, 1869:

Ha ! ha ! ha ! this Romeo, silly looney,

Has, on old Capulet's daughter, got quite spooney ;

And now to wed her he is nothing loth.

Ha ! ha ! he'll find my fingers in the broth.

Rural and city life : or: The fortunes of the Stubble family, 1870:

"... Ho, ho, ho ! what a billy looney he must be to give that money for a hape ov ould rub- bidge ! Ha, ha, ha ! his wife wud give him beans when he took the tubs home, I 'll ingage." " There, there, that'll do, Biddy. You have laughed quite enough. ..."

Dublin University magazine: a literary and political journal, Volume 77, 1871:

Gazing on the intruder, whom he did not at first recognise, he faltered : " You looney ! ... Are you mad, Looney ?" "Blood and thunder! To be sure I am ; or I should be if I let you and Colonel O'Dywer have it all your own way. ...

The West Point scrap book: a collection of stories, songs, and legends of the United States military academy, 1871:

... and my only regret is that I am not in a " Lunatic Asylum," for there I could " while the fearfully weary hours away," in watching the eccentric performances of individuals more " looney " than myself; but under the existing ...

The Alaska herald: Volumes 4-6, 1871:

We are sorry the author of the following story did'not send us his name, as some people are uncharitable enough to suggest that two- thirds of the tales of this kind are fabrications, and the remainder the product of " looney " fancies ...

History of a trip to the great Saginaw Valley, June, 1871, by invitation of the Fort Wayne, Muncie, and Cincinnati railroad, and with the co-operation of the Bee line, Fort Wayne, Jackson and Saginaw, and Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw railroad companies, 1871:

"Where's the wilderness?" I asked, as we made our way through smiling villages and luxuriant farms. What a looney I must have seemed to the engineer, who laughed, but made no talk.

Finally, here's an 1885 definition of luny.

The progressive dictionary of the English language: a supplementary wordbook to all the leading dictionaries of the United States and Great Britain, 1885:

Luny a. Unsound in mind ; crazy; loony. [Low. U. S.]

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+1 for your excellent research. – Nicholas Aug 14 '11 at 11:30
Just edited to show some possible references from before 1853. – Hugo Aug 14 '11 at 11:36

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