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I believe "crackpot" dates back to the last decade of the nineteenth century; however, I'm curious to know why "crackpot" was used to describe someone mentally unbalanced or crazy. Any thoughts?

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3 Answers 3

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OED's definition #5 for cracked...

Of the brain, mind, etc.: Unsound, impaired, somewhat deranged.
Of a person: Unsound in mind, slightly insane, crazy.

...for which the first relevant citation is...

1610 Bp. J. Hall Common Apol. against Brownists xxvii. 68
That which this man was wont so oft to obiect to his brother (a crack't braine).

As to the specific conjunction crackpot, I think it's worth noting that -pot is appended to various other "fused words" applied (usually, negatively) to people - moneypots, honeypot, fusspot, tosspot.

I think it's fairly obvious that crack't/cracked in this context is just a slightly more figurative way of saying broken, not functioning properly. Per @Oldcat's comment below, additional -pot component could be interpreted as head, brain, skull. Or it may be simply added for prosody (or by association with related forms), and not really add any specific extra meaning.

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  • I think rather that 'pot' is a reference to the head. So a crack-pot would be a broken brained person.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 17, 2014 at 18:04
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    @Oldcat: I'm not sure what you mean by "rather" there. I never actually suggested any specific meaning to the "suffix" -pot as in those examples (it's probably not consistent, anyway). Apparently, obsolete pot of the head was the skull (or brainbox, in which context it may be worth noting that fusspot also has the variant fussbox). OED's 1610 citation above explicitly says crack't braine, but they have "Would you not think him a little crack'd?" from John Locke in 1693, so crack/cracked could stand alone in this sense since long ago (pot may add nothing). Mar 18, 2014 at 17:35
  • I am as an alternative suggesting a particular meaning to pot, meaning head.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 18, 2014 at 17:36
  • @Oldcat: And it's a perfectly credible suggestion. All I'm saying is that until the last four words in my preceding sentence, I'd offered no other suggestion against which yours might be considered an "alternative". If it "means" anything at all, I'd say pot = head, brain, skull sounds perfectly reasonable. But taking particular note of fusspot, fussbox, fussbudget there may actually be little if any "meaning" to -pot here. Mar 18, 2014 at 17:44
  • Potty seems to show up at roughly the same time as crackpot.
    – Frank
    Sep 6, 2014 at 9:35
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FumbleFingers has a great answer for the history of crackpot. But know that I don't find this meaning to hold up with the younger generation.

If you call someone a crackhead, they are either an addict, or acting like a dumbass. My kids are definitely crackheads sometimes.

If you call someone a crackpot you are basically calling them a crackhead. Wrong or right the drug "crack" has changed the meaning to people.

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I think pot is being used in terms of "a collection of something" or another way to say "a lot of", so a moneypot is someone with a lot of money, a fusspot is a overly fussy person, a tosspot is someone who is very mucher a tosser (British slang) or very toss-y in nature.

A crackpot therefore, drawing on the suggested meaning for crack, would mean someone who is very crazy.

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  • Good point - Fleshpot, fusspot, stinkpot and sexpot
    – Frank
    Sep 6, 2014 at 9:30

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