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A question on ELU gives some background on the use of looney. Etymonline's entry for bin has "receptacle", "all from L.L. benna 'cart,' M.L. benna 'basket.'"

Loony bin seems to be analogous to police box or paddy wagon. I'm not sure if the "insane" were literally kept in boxes or carted up as the definition implies. If not, why was bin chosen?

Was bin used in similar phrases or contexts, or was it just a unique construction that caught on?

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I think "bin" refers to the "asylum" in this case (i.e., the insane asylum). – J.R. Sep 8 '12 at 17:52
    
@J.R. Well, I assume it's either "asylum" or "ward" as you state, but I'm curious if there was a history of extending the definition that far. For instance, I've seen a money bin from at least as early as 1951. I'm not sure if it was inspired by "loony bin" or if "bin" often referred to any kind of structure or warehouse. – Zairja Sep 8 '12 at 17:58
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A bin is a place to store things, including unwanted things. A loony bin is a place to store the loonies. – Roaring Fish Sep 8 '12 at 18:05
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@RoaringFish That looks like an answer. – SevenSidedDie Sep 8 '12 at 18:07
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@J.R. ... or farm, as in funny farm. – coleopterist Sep 8 '12 at 18:56
up vote 1 down vote accepted

A bin is an enclosed place for storage, such as a coal bin.

From Merriam-Webster:

Etymology:Middle English binne, from Old English binn, binne manger, basket, probably of Celtic origin; akin to Gaulish benna two-wheeled cart with a wicker body; akin to Greek phatn* manger, Old English bindan to bind * more at BIND

: a box, frame, crib, or enclosed place used for storage coal bin *apple bin* grain bin

The OED says the receptacle meaning is used "in the most diverse senses" and gives examples storing grain, straw on a farm-yard, a partition in a barn, manger for animals in a barn, and a receptacle for storage of food ("corn, meal, bread, fruit") and later other things like dust and coal.


Interestingly, the following was only added to the OED as a draft addition in 1997 and first quoted in 1972:

Any receptacle for holding rubbish or waste, esp. waste paper; a waste-bin.

1972 T. Stoppard Jumpers i. 23 Crouch enters from the Kitchen, carrying a bin of rubbish and several empty champagne bottles.

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It's worth noting that, as punishment, it was not unknown for a parent of 100 years ago (and perhaps up to as recently as 1960) to lock their child into the coal bin for a period of time -- a cold, dark place, and a place where you can't help becoming covered in grime. Likely this practice would have been applied to "crazy" people as well. (But the presence of this practice is not necessary for the average person of a hundred years ago to understand the figurative meaning of "bin".) – Hot Licks Feb 18 at 23:47

Online Etymology Dictionary reports that loony bin is less than 100 years old:

Slang loony bin "insane asylum" is from 1919.

However, a Google Books search finds one instance from a decade earlier. From P.G. Wodehouse, Mike and Psmith (1909):

“Nothing that happens in this loony bin,” said Psmith, “has power to surprise me now. There was a time when I might have thought it a little unusual to have to leave the house through a canvas chute at one o'clock in the morning, but I suppose it's quite a regular thing here. Old school tradition, etc. ..."

Wodehouse also accounts for the second-earliest Google Books match, albeit in the variant form "looney-bin." From P.G. Wodehouse, Indiscretions of Archie (1921):

Archie proceeded on his way, still mystified. Then he reflected that artists as a class were all pretty weird and rummy and talked more or less consistently through their hats. You couldn't ever take an artist's opinion on a picture. Nine out of ten of them had views on Art which would have admitted them to any looney-bin, and no questions asked. He had met several of the species who absolutely raved over things which any reasonable chappie would decline to be found dead in a ditch with.

I haven't been able to identify the 1919 occurrence that Etymonline has in mind. However, Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937) has this entry for the phrase:

loony-bin. A lunatic asylum : Cockneys' : from ca. 1890. Ex loony, [definition] 2 [namely, "a fool, a lunatic"].

In the term loony bin, bin seems to refer simply to a holding-chamber, box, or other container. Partridge may be right that the phrase "loony-bin" goes back to the late nineteenth century in England, but he provides no instances of it in print from that period or later. Wodehouse may be the person most responsible for its spread to general usage throughout the English-speaking world.

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