7

In these days of self-isolation the composite "stir-crazy" has come to the fore. Several instances of people saying they or others are "going stir-crazy" have been heard.

According to the OED it is principally a US idiom based on the slang word "stir" meaning "prison". But the OED does not seem to know why prison was ever known as "the stir".

Any ideas?

4
  • Origin: Mid 19th century: perhaps from Romany sturbin -> ‘jail’. Also here: dictionary.com/browse/stir – Decapitated Soul Apr 1 '20 at 17:41
  • You didn't do very good research. etymonline.com/word/stir-crazy – Hot Licks Apr 1 '20 at 19:54
  • 1
    @HotLicks Problem with Etymoline is that they do not provide any examples of use. Earliest reference to "stir = prison" in the OED is from 1851 - which seems a little surprising if its origin is Romany. Romanies were around in the sixteenth century and appear in Shakespeare. Anyway, today was the first time in my life I had ever known that "stir" meant prison. But a Romany origin is an intriguing idea, and for that reason have upvoted the below answer. But there has to be a reason why the conservative OED says origin unknown. – WS2 Apr 1 '20 at 22:14
  • @WS2 OED says origin unknown as there are several competing suggestions, none of which make it to the standard of "possibly from" or "probably from". – Greybeard Nov 15 '20 at 21:53
8

It appears to be a BrE term:

Stir

Prison:

also sterr, stur [abbr. Rom. sturiben, a prison, staripen, to imprison; ult. štar, to imprison]

  • 1835 [UK] Worcester Herald 26 Dec. 4/3: Sturabin a gaol.

  • 1859 [UK] Hotten Dict. of Modern Sl. etc. 52: IN STIR, to be in prison.

  • 1861 [UK] (con. 1840s–50s) H. Mayhew London Labour and London Poor I 219/1: Just out of ‘stir’ (jail) for ‘muzzling a peeler’.

(GDoS)

Its origin may derive from a notorious London prison nicknamed Start according to:

the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, stir may have originated as a variation on Start, a nickname criminals gave to Newgate, a notorious prison throughout London’s history. Stir, if this is true, broadened out from “Newgate” specifically to “prison” in general.

The term started to be used in AmE from early 20th century:

  • 1900 [US] Flynt & Walton Powers That Prey 41: If you shouldn’t happen to discover a way of helpin’ me, that telegram reads cuffs in Clinton Place, jail in Akron, Stir in Columbus.

By the early 20th century, stir had traveled to the United States, where crazy was added to describe “a prisoner who has succumbed to prison-induced insanity,” as slang lexicographer Jonathon Green defines it.

He points out many colorful permutations: Stir-bug, stir-nut, stir-psycho, and stir-simple all referred to such prisoners who had gone stir-crazy, while stir-batty, stir-happy, and stir-looney were other ways to characterize the experience. US prison slang used stir for other terms throughout the 20th century, too, such as a stir hustler (“one who has mastered the ‘art’ of incarceration”) and stir lawyer (“a fellow prisoner who offers advice based on his own purported legal expertise”). Green also finds stir active more recently, used for “time served in prison” come the 2010s.

(mashedradish.com)

1
  • How interesting! I wonder why the OED don't seem to know about this? – WS2 Apr 1 '20 at 18:44
3

Louise Pound wrote two brief articles (1930, 1931) that, together, elucidate the uncertain etymology of 'stir' in the sense of "a prison or jail".

In the 1930 article, titled "The Etymology of STIR 'Prison'", Pound states

…the history of the term has not been carefully traced. Perhaps, in the absence of links pointing toward the older forms, its ancestry cannot be certainly supplied. It seems to me far likelier, however, that the word, if coming from the Old English, is to be associated, not with the verb styrian, agitate, but with the noun stēor (stīer, stȳr) defined in Old English dictionaries as meaning (1) steering, guidance (2) rule, regulation (3) restraint, discipline, check, correction. The phonetic development from either stēor or stȳr is normal, if we keep in mind the sixteenth-century coalescence of -er, -ir, -ur, -or. The shortened vowel of a Middle English stēr or stīr might have arisen out of compounds like, stēorness, stȳrness, correction, discipline, or stēorlēas, without restraint, stēorwirþe, deserving reprobation, etc. Or compare sir, shortened from sire. On the semantic side the development of stir from Old English stēor seems even more probable than on the phonetic side.

I was well-satisfied with this explanation, particularly considering a previous finding in Hotten's 1860 A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words:

STIR, a prison, a lock-up; "IN STIR," in jail. Anglo Saxon, STYR, correction, punishment.

And again in the much-maligned Charles MacKay's 1877 The Gaelic etymology of the languages of western Europe:

STIR (Slang).—A prison.
  In stir, in jail; Anglo-Saxon, styr, correction, punishment. [Hotten's 1860] Slang Dictionary.
 Gaelic.— Stuir, management, direction, control; to direct, to steer; whence "in stir," under control (of the prison authorities).

There remained to discover why (or how) OED disregarded the rather obvious derivation from stȳr. However, I had observed in passing that Pound followed the 1930 article with another article, in 1931, titled "The Etymology of STIR 'Prison' Again", so I sought that out with the hope of resolving the question. In that second article, Pound writes

[My previous] suggested etymology seems likely enough, and I am unable to find that it has been brought forward hitherto. [We now know Pound's suggested etymology was brought forward by Hotten in 1860, and quoted by MacKay in 1877.] An objection to it, however, may be found in the gulf of time elapsing between the disappearance of the Old English word, in printed monuments, and the emergence of the underworld word in late modern times.
 There is another possibility that should be taken into account, that suggested by the familiar tradition of the relation between nineteenth-century slang expressions and the language of the Gypsies. Among the words used by the English Gypsies … are stardo (past participle) 'imprisoned,' staripen 'prison,' staromengro 'prisoner.' … A derivation of the monosyllabic noun stir from the initial syllable of these formations is perhaps less acceptable phonetically than that from the Old English, but it is easily possible and it seems more acceptable chronologically. The connection between slang and the speech of the Gypsies is not so close, it may be, nor the debt so great, as was believed in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, some words in widespread usage — e. g., the familiar pal — are credited to the English Gypsies, and stir may belong in the same category. Certainly, whether the noun be of native or gypsy origin, a better spelling would be ster, dissociating it to the eye from the verb stir 'agitate.'

The Gaelic stuir (as suggested in MacKay, 1877) might provide the chronological link Pound sought between Old English and the "emergence of the underworld word in late modern times". That connection seems especially likely considering that (a) Romani derives in part from Gaelic, and (b) the parallel development of 'sturabin' (a form of the Romani staripen) is also offered in MacKay 1877:

STURABIN (Slang).—A prison.
 Gaelic.— Sturr, a rock; sturrag, a pinnacle, a high tower; sturragach, pinnacled, having towers like French prison; abhuin, water; whence sturrabin [MacKay seems to be proposing a Gaelic compound of sturragach and abhuin], a rock in the water, inaccessible.

I note for the sake of completeness that derivation of 'stir', "a prison", from 'Start', a nickname for Newgate prison, seems to be founded on a slender phonological resemblance and the otherwise fanciful association of 'stir' with a transparently jocular entry in the 1823 Slang, by John Badcock (pseudonym Jon Bee):

Start (the) — Newgate is thus termed, par excellence. But every felon-prison would be equally a start….

The 1860 Hotten also contains an entry for 'the start'. No mention is made of 'stir' in that entry, as is also the case with the entry in the Badcock's 1823 Slang.

START, "THE START," London,— the great starting point for beggars and tramps.

3
  • Fantastic answer! Could you please suggest some exceptionally informative and brilliant books on or about **words**— their etymologies and histories, usage over time, and related such. I would be grateful! @JEL – user405662 Dec 16 '20 at 6:09
  • 1
    Thanks, @user405662 Just suggestions (I haven't necessarily read them completely): 3 by Mark Forsyth, including The Etymologicon; Lingo, Gaston Dorren; The Word Detective, John Simpson; Word Origins...and how we know them, Anatoly Liberman. Liberman also writes a (free) weekly column for Oxford University Press. – JEL Dec 16 '20 at 6:41
  • Thank you very much, @JEL! :) – user405662 Dec 16 '20 at 6:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.