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I have checked many online dictionaries - they all agree that one of the meanings of "unhinged" is "disturbed" or "unbalanced" but none give a good explanation as to how this meaning came into being.

Any ideas?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Going by the OED, the modern use of unhinged to mean “psychologically disturbed” is a specialisation of a more general and slightly earlier use meaning (in the OED’s words) thrown into confusion; unsettled, disordered:

I might by my loose and unhing’d Circumstances be the fitter to embrace a Proposal for Trade.
        — 1719, Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe.

(Of course, this more general sense is still sometimes used, although the mental sense is certainly now dominant.)

This in turn comes from the fairly transparent metaphor of a door that has slipped its hinges, which appears rather earlier:

The wisest and best Poets doe loue sometimes to play the foole, and to leape out of the hindges.
        — ?1608, Of Wisdome i. xiv. 62, S. Lennard, trans. P. Charron

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+1 for source and example of the relevant metaphor. – simchona Aug 22 '11 at 1:48
I'm happy with the answer (+1) but I don't think the meaning is as "transparent" as you think. The word is well known but, without fore knowledge and context, one could guess "unhinged" to mean "unconstrained" instead. – dave Aug 22 '11 at 18:25

A person in a normal state would be "hinged," or "put together."

So "unhinged" would imply the opposite, of being "undone."

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I've never heard either of those terms used as an opposite to "unhinged" in this context. I'd like to see an example of how you'd use "hinged" in a sentence this way. Also, isn't this an etymology question? – Wesley Murch Aug 22 '11 at 17:19
@Wesley: If a door is "hinged," it's likely to stay in place. If it is "unhinged," it is likely to come apart (from the doorway). The "etymology" of this to people would be the metaphor. – Tom Au Aug 22 '11 at 20:22
What I meant is that I can't think of an example where you'd use "hinged" in reference to a person. – Wesley Murch Aug 25 '11 at 15:48

A mention from 1669

As for the those wingy Mysteries in Divinity, and airy subtilties in Religion, which have unhing'd the brains of better heads, they never stretched the Pia Mater of mine; me thinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion, for an active faith; the deepest Mysteries our contains, have not onely been illustrated, but maintained by Syllogism,and the rule of Reason.
— Th Browne Religio Medici 1669 (p16-17)

'unhing'd here seems to have the meaning of disconnected ~confused ~ disturbed. Also note the contrast: 'never stretched the Pia Mater of mine [=my brain]', not that different from more modern 'never gave me a headache'

So to paraphrase: those mysteries which have confused wiser men than me, never made me confused

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