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A person with psychological problems can be called unbalanced.

Unbalanced

  • 1.1 (of a person) emotionally or mentally disturbed. (The Online Oxford English Dictionary)
  • If you describe someone as unbalanced, you mean that they appear disturbed and upset or they seem to be slightly mad. (The Online Collins Dictionary)

Balance is a motionless state when opposing forces are equal and mutually annihilate each other.

But what is the connection between balance and mental state? What is the analogy? Why do people come to mind to compare a state of mind with a motionless state when opposing forces are equal?

Interestingly, such comparison exists not only in English but also in Russian (неуравновешенный) and French (déséquilibré).

What is the etymology or the origin of this word in this particular meaning?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 24 at 13:37
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Joachim is probably on the right track. In support of his suggestion:

The concept of four temperaments and humours is an ancient and alternative approach to personality theory by Hippocrates. He proposed an imbalance of bodily fluids (ie black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood) results in extreme temperaments.

[PersonalityPsychology_guides]

The usage would thus be metaphor (though Hippocrates would have seen it as metonymy).

It is possible, however, that 'unbalanced judgements' (ie not properly thought out and weighted) could have informed the usage:

unbalanced (adj.)

1640s, from un- (1) "not" + past participle of balance (v.). Earliest use is in reference to the mind, judgment, etc.

[Online Etymology Dictionary] [emphasis mine, EA]

'Maladjusted' though refers to a person's adaptiveness to their social environment.

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  • The addendum you added after closing the question helped a lot in clarifying the etymology of the word. After receiving the first answers, I began to think that such a metaphor arose from humorism or some similar teaching. However, your examples of early use of the word, which mentioned unbalanced vessels, have convinced me that a vessel is the most likely base of this metaphor. Vessels used to be common means of transport. And such a metaphor could be understood by a wide range of people, in contrast to humorism, which was known to people of science. – Eagle May 22 at 22:32
  • Thank you very much for the tremendous work you have done. I didn't expect such enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I don't know how to get the question to be reopened. The question was closed because someone thought it was opinion-based. – Eagle May 22 at 22:33
  • @Eagle I've reöpened it. – tchrist May 22 at 23:06
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Following up on Edwin Ashworth's very useful wiki answer, I note that Early English Books Online finds five instances of unballanced from the 1640s (the earliest decade of occurrence cited by Etymology Online), but also three from the 1630s. Because the context of the earliest uses is of particular interest in this case, I reproduce all eight instances below. (The earliest EEBO match for unbalanced spelled with just one l is from 1652.)

From Thomas Jackson, The Humiliation of the Sonne of God by His Becomming the Son of Man, by Taking the Forme of a Servant, and by His Sufferings under Pontius Pilat, &c. Or The Eighth Book of Commentaries vpon the Apostles Creed (1635):

But was it possible that either the collapsed Angels, or man by their suggestion, should attempt or desire to bee equall with God, or to bee Gods Almighty? To bee in all points coequall with God, was perhaps more than Lucifer himselfe did desire: yet that even our first Parents desired to bee in some sort or other equall with God, is probable from the Apostles character of the Sonne of God [Hee being, saith hee, in the forme of God, thought it no robbery to bee equall with God.] This to my understanding implies, that the robbery or sacriledge committed by our first Parents for which the Sonne of God did humble and ingage himselfe to make satisfaction, was their proud or haughty attempt to be equal with God, at lest in knowledge of good and evill. And yet, as was said before, the collapsed Angels had doubtlesse sinned more presumptuously, before they tempted our first Parents to the like sinne. Neither man nor Angel could have affected equality in any one attribute with their Creator, much lesse in all or most, so they had made his glory, power, or majesty, the chiefe or principall object of their first contemplations. But how farre the previal sinne of omitting this duty, might let loose their strong and swift imaginations unballanced with experience, or what entrance it might work for that desperate and positive sinne of Ambition, or seeking to bee equall or like to God for power and wisdome; God, and they onely know, if haply they now know, or perfectly remember the maner of their first transgressions. Many things, many learned and wise men doe, and attempt more, through incogitancy, want of consideration (or ad pauca respicientes) which by men of meaner parts would bee suspected for a spice of madnesse, if they had taken them into serious consideration before.

This first instance corroborates Etymology Online's contention that "Earliest use is in reference to the mind, judgment, etc." Not so the second occurrence, however.

From Adam Harsnett, A Cordiall for the Afflicted Touching the Necessitie and Utilitie of Afflictions. Proving unto Us the Happinesse of Those That Thankfully Receive Them: and the Misery of All That Want Them, or Profit Not by Them (1638):

Wee enjoy and command our selves; for impatience puts a man out, and makes to be beside himselfe. By faith wee possesse Christ, by love wee possesse our neighbor, yea our enemie, and by patience wee possesse our selves. He hath but a weak hold of Christ, or of his neighbor, that hath no hold, or command of himselfe. An impatient person is as one out of the way, or as a bone dislocated, and out of joynt. What stabilitie can be, where Patience sits not at the stern to direct and govern? A ship that rides at sea well ballanced, is steddy, and so proves comfortable unto the Passengers that bee abord her: whereas an unballanced vessell reels (like a drunken man) and tumbles too and fro with every little gale, and blast of wind, and so make those weary, if not sick, that be in her.

Here the illustrative comparison to an unstable mind is "an unbalanced vessell"—that is, a ship that has been poorly loaded and is therefore at greater than usual danger of violently pitching or even capsizing in adverse conditions. This would seem to contradict Etymology Online's assertion, "Of material things, it [unbalanced] is recorded from 1732."

From William Sclater, "The Worthy Communicant Rewarded. Laid Forth in a Sermon, on John 6.54. Preached in the Cathedrall of St. Peter in Exeter, on Low-Sunday, Being the 21. of Aprill, Anno 1639" (1639):

And secondly, if they would follow learned Hookers counsell, a worthy instrument in our Church, who wished that men would more give themselves to meditate with silence [what] wee have by the Sacrament, and lesse to dispute of the [manner] (how,) at least considering that successe which Truth hath hitherto had by so bitter conflicts with errour in this point: Thus if we could be perswaded, oh what honey might we sucke as a Samson from his Lyon, from this blessed Sacrament, for our peace and comfort, which now those bitter waters of Meribah, and strife, running downe so violently in a floud, doe, in a sort, wash off from many a seduced and unballanced soule! But woe, and alas! how may our mother the Church, well typed in the Arke of Noah, (she is so tossed on the working billowes of windy, yet boysterous spirits) speake out with Rebekkah, when shee felt her Twinnes to struggle together within her, If it bee so, that I have conceived,Why am I thus? what meanes this strange, and this unnaturall elbowing, and shouldring, and justling together in the same womb betweene Brethren?

This example is interesting because, although Sclater speaks specifically of an "unballanced soule," he describes such souls as being swept away in a flood, and then he turns his attention to Noah's Ark as a symbol for "our mother the Church," which alone preserves souls from destruction.

From Daniel Rogers, Naaman the Syrian His Disease and Cure Discovering Lively to the Reader the Spirituall Leprosie of Sinne and Selfe-Love, Together with the Remedies, viz. Selfe-Deniall and Faith (1642):

Nourish humility and simplicity of spirit (next to faith) above all: Inure thy selfe to deny much for God, that so he may grow dearer to thee, and thou to him: Spend not, nor waste thy zeale needlessely and rashly upon objects of lesser weight, but reserve thy selfe, till a better warrant, and call, a stronger, and more weighty object to pull thee forth: lest thou faile in the hottest of the attempt, as those mostly doe, whose zeale is unballanced. Be not wedded to thy selfe: for the spirit of grace doth not so well befit him, who abounds in his owne sense. Moses was a man who in his own matters was very meek and calm: and therfore his zeale in breaking the Tables, and indignation against that Idolatry, became him the better.

Here "unbalanced zeal" seems to amount to immoderate religious enthusiasm.

From Samuel Clarke, "Englands Covenant Proved Lawful and Necessary Also at This Time Both by Scripture and Reason Together with Sundry Answers to the Usual Objections Made Against It" (1643):

This question is so fully, and largely discussed, and the thing proved to be lawfull both in case of Law, and Conscience, by Mr. Prin in his third part, and by diverse of our Di∣vines in their Answers to Dr. Ferne, that I shall referre the Reader to seeke for satisfaction there, where it may be had abundantly, if they come with unballanced Judgements and shut not their eyes against that light which shineth therein.

From Jerome Alexander, "A Breviate of a Sentence Given Against Jerome Alexander Esquire, an Utter Barrester of Lincolns-Inne, in the Court of Star-chamber, the 17th Day of November, in the Second Yeer of the Raign of our Soveraign Lord King Charls, of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, &c. With Exceptions Taken to the Said Sentence, to Unfold the Iniquity Thereof" (1644):

... he is an Hermaphrodite, begotten betwixt Hawk and Buzzard, puts his sickle into every mans harvest, will be medling, what soever comes of it, albeit most times in the conclusion, he finds little thanks for his labour; makes work to have work, and rather than stand out, will spin his tow into a mighty length, make much ado about nothing, that he may be seen to have imployent, when God knowes those into whose society and businesse he thrusts himself, had rather have his roome than his Company, for this Swan though he hath milkie feathers, yet hath he a black Carcase: with Athalia you shall have him crying treason, treason, when himself is the greatest Traytor; and like a mad dog, you shall finde him as angry barking at the Moon which he cannot reach (at him thats above him) and doth but crosse his humour) as at that man whom he gets presently by the shins, and cannot withstand his fury, like the Raven you shall have him no longer to stay in the Ark, then he hath need of Noah, for his own ends [h]e will shake each man by the hand, and like wax will be pliable to every Print, the sparrows feather serves him as well as the Swans, without check he passeth over his own faults, but doth laugh at all others sinnes, and like a child seeing his visage in a glasse thinks it another babye; like thunder, when he makes the greatest clap, he lets all but a little stone, his discourse commonly ends in a lye: like a light vessell thats unballanced, he rises and fals with every wave, oderunt, quos metuit, first he hurts, and then he hates, and ever after he lookes upon them as guilty of that shame and sadnesse, which in the sin he hath contracted, and thus makes hatred an Apologie for wrong, and out of the narrownesse, incapacity, and Antipathy of his owne minde he fals to an under-valuing of persons, even to their non entity and existence, as things utterly unusefull, because he sees not what use himselfe can have of them, herein discovering as much absurdity in so peremptory a dislike as a blind man should do in wishing the sun put out, not considering that he himself receiveth benefit at the second hand from that very light, the beauty whereof he hath no acquaintance withall he will insult over a mans sufferings, and where he finds a Cowardly and faint resistance, will domineer like a pig in Pease-straw, and as a resty jade will then shew his tricks, when he findes his rider fearefull to put spurs to his sides; ...

In this astonishing, breathless rant (in which a single sentence goes on for pages), Alexander applies the same metaphor of an unbalanced vessel that Harsnett did to apassionate and inconstant person who "rises and fals with every wave."

The seventh-earliest match likewise seems to apply unballanced to a material thing—although not to anything maritime related. From a 1645 translation of "Pliny's Panegyricke: a Speech in Senate: Wherein Publike Thankes Are Presented to the Emperour Traian":

To breed up their children the rich are encouraged by great rewards and equall punishments, but the poore to take care for theirs have onely one reason, a good Prince. Now children borne for his service, unlesse with a munificent hand he cherish, feed, and embrace them, he hastens the sun-set of the Empire, the sun-set of the State; in vain a Prince neglecting the Communalty, like a head to a defective body, maintaines a bulke staggering with an unballanced weight.

And from Stephen Rich, "The Answer of Captain Stephen Rich Commander of the State Packet Barques and Post-Master of Dublin to a Scandalous Information of Evan Vaughan, late Post-Master of the Same City (1649):

7. That Captain Rich, did contract with the State to keep two able Barques for their service only, but did keep but one for fourteen months together, yet hath received his whole stipend for two, and that one Barque did make but one Voyage in the States service from the 30. of September 1648. to the eight of April 1649. And whereas the said Barques should at all times be in readinesse for the States service, and at no time unballanced, or laden and cumbred with Merchants goods, and yet whither he had one or two, they were alwayes unballasted of purpose to take in Merchants goods or Coales for his own best advantage.

To the seventh charge this Defendant saith, That he ever kept two sufficient Barques for the use of the State, save only in that time that both his said Barques were carryed away as aforesaid and then he pro∣vided two Barques for the said Service withall the expedition he could, but denyeth that the same were unballanced at any time when there was occasion to use them for the States service, and as to that part of the charge concerning taking in of Goods aboard, this Defendant humbly offereth and saith, that although it bring in no profit to the Owner, yet it was never denyed the Servant, that whilst the Barques did attend, and before the Packet came to hand the men might take in some Truncks or Goods, which perhaps might produce for their advantage, and incouragement, sometimes ten shillings, or more or lesser as occasion offered; ...

Thus, in the eight instances of "unballanced" that an EEBO search turns up, three instances that explicitly focus on unbalanced boats, and a fourth refers figuratively to "unballanced soules" that are subject to drowning and to the church as an Ark of safety. These examples certainly don't prove that unbalanced arose first in the context of cargo loads aboard ships, but they do offer fairly strong evidence that unbalanced loads on vessels were an early area of usage of the term unballanced.


Finally, I want to point out the following outlier occurrence of the word imballanced, which appears in Gervase Markham, The English Arcadia Alluding His Beginning from Sir Philip Sydneys Ending (1607):

The other in the Gallioon with no lesse but rather a more inauspitious hād of death ouer his incoūterers, by how much more neer he grew vnto the iudgemēts of the beholders, augmented both his owne rage, & their opinions touching the excellency of his rage; distributing such vnresistaable blowes, that his sword was seen sildom or neuer fall with his hand, but a body deuided from a soule fell dead at his foote; so that as it was most likely to be imagined the poore in-habitants of that vessell, growne to the desperate willfullnesse of absolute desperatenes (which is by death to shunne death) willfully ran the ship against the Rocks, whose armed brest of too hie proofe for so slender timber, split her in one instant into many thousand disioyned peeces; the suruiuing remnant more willingly offring vp their liues into the hands of the mercilesse Sea, whose mercy they had not tasted; then to the subiection of his sword, whose vigor in punishing their breathles companions bodies, in their floating witnessed. But neither did the daring of their dispaires (which was the vnexpected entrance to this euill, neither the danger it selfe (wherein the preciousnes of his deare life was imballanced) neither the inacquaintance of the soyle whereon he was ship-wrackt, neither his many wounds, the losse of Fortune, Hope, Honour, Wealth, or other expectati∣on breed in him either amazement, feare, or desistance from the continuance of that reuenge, which from the begīning he with so great vertue pursued; for being now left to struggle with the vnruly waues, whose imperious billowes (many times counter-checking his desires) gaue him a feeling remembrance of his mortall constitution, he gathered new life, by the hazard wherwith the old life stoode indangered: and swimming with such beautifull cōlinesse as Triton is feined to do, whē he vshers Neptune to Venus banquets, with his sworde in his hand, which often ensigne-like he flourished about his head, as who should say, Danger is but the hand-maid to Vertue, or as if he would haue chalenged moe perils then those, imputing the escape of this no worthie reputation; without turning his eie backe vpon his owne safetie, he followed on still the ruine of those to whome was left no comfort but in ruinous perishing, and made such slaughter, that not a breathing soule was left to complaine, that so manie by one were become breathlesse; ...

I can't tell whether imballanced here means "unbalanced" or "put into the balance"—that is, figuratively, put at risk. In any event, the fact that the action described occurs on board a ship that is intentionally driven onto the rocks to escape death at the hands of a pirate seems merely coincidental with the "unbalanced vessel" instances of the 1630s and 1640s. It is also noteworthy this instance is one of only two that EEBO finds for the word imballanced/imbalanced from the period 1450–1700, the other one being from 1661 and involving "a graine imbalanced against the round world" and therefore "found light and to bear no scale at all"—a context indicating that the word there means "placed in balance against."

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It's unclear why this metaphor needs much explanation. People vary in the degree that they are mentally "stable" -- some people are easily excited/angered, while others will remain calm and (at least externally) undisturbed in spite of provocations that would arouse most people.

A person who is "balanced" exhibits stability in spite of what one might consider to be "normal" day-to-day aggravations. This is not to say that they don't react to the aggravations, but that their reactions are "reasonable". People who are "unbalanced" would often let minor issues displace their emotions one direction or the other.

As to the etymology, envision a typical children's seesaw (or teeter totter, if you prefer). If the children on each side have about the same weight, the seesaw will tend to balance rather than lean to one side or the other. Only a mild effort on the part of the children will be required to keep the seesaw tilting back and forth. And this tendency to relative mild behavior will be enhanced by the arrangement of the pivot -- the higher the pivot is relative to the horizontal board the calmer and better controlled the motion will be.

On the other hand, if the pivot is placed low relative to the horizontal board the seesaw will tend to flop towards one side or the other, making the riding experience rougher and, for many kids, less enjoyable.

People's emotions are somewhat like this. If ones emotional pivot is placed high then their emotions will tend to be balanced, but if the pivot is low their emotions will flop back and forth between highs and lows (ie, bipolar).

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  • The point is that balanced does not directly mean stable. If we have balanced beam scales, it is enough to put a piece of paper on one of the bowls to bring them out of balance. They are not stable. Sven Yargs gave examples of the oldest uses. From them, this metaphor is most likely associated with an unbalanced vessel, which is underloaded, and therefore unstable on the water. Vessels used to be common means of transport. And such a metaphor could be understood by a wide range of people. I think you are right about stability, but Sven's answer gives a better understanding of the etymology. – Eagle May 22 at 23:22
  • Thank you for the understandable explanation of the meaning of the word. It helped me. However, I was more interested in the word's etymology. – Eagle May 22 at 23:23
  • @Eagle Balance beam scales are stable even when the beam is not horizontal. "Stable" means that if you move the beam slightly it will return to its original position. Similarly a person with an extreme personality (e.g. a psychopath) may have a stable personality - i.e. they display the same (abnormal) behavior in any situation. – alephzero May 24 at 11:40
  • "It's unclear why this metaphor needs much explanation" You are frankly reading in the wrong tag, mate. This isn't about 'meaning'. "As to the etymology, envision a typical children's seesaw" This is methodologically unsound. You have no idea what you are talking about, so you are talking about something else instead,in the hopes that it confuses the reader enough to let go. This is all good and well, it just doesn't belong here as an answer, and it definitely does not deserve 6+ upvotes from those confused readers. Please delete it yourself. – vectory Jun 5 at 9:07
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Balance is connected with stability. As you observe, "a motionless state when opposing forces are equal and mutually annihilate each other. There are also dynamically balanced situations which are not motionless, such as a person standing, walking or cycling. To be dynamically balanced is to remain in some predictable, controlled, desirable range of states.

Standing balanced requires control: the brain monitors the orientation of the body and generates countless compensating movements. To lack balance is to lack control and stability, leading to falling down.

Balance and stability are used as metaphors for mental states. For instance, terms like "mental collapse" or "nervous breakdown". People can be described as "unstable". Someone's unexpected behavior or remark can "throw you off balance", meaning that it is disturbing or upsetting.

To lack mental balance is to lack control and stability: not to be able to remain in some predictable, controlled, desirable range of states.

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  • This is a plausible explanation. Judging by the answers here, people do associate balance with stability. However, balanced does not directly mean stable, because balance can easily be destroyed by a new external force. If we have balanced scales, it is enough to put a piece of paper on one of the bowls to bring them out of balance. Sven Yargs gave examples of the oldest uses, where the authors compare an unstable mind to an unbalanced vessel, which is underloaded, and therefore unstable on the water. In the case of a vessel, a balance between buoyancy and gravity will indeed affect stability. – Eagle May 24 at 9:52
  • Now I think this metaphor origin is an unbalanced vessel. In the past vessels used to be common means of transportation. So it could be understood by a wide range of people. Over time, people have probably forgotten the metaphor's basis and directly associate balance with stability. – Eagle May 24 at 9:58
  • @Eagle Indeed, etymology and the current derivation of a word are not the same thing. People don't even forget etymology; they don't know it in the first place. – Kaz May 24 at 14:19
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I'd say first that, not so interestingly, such notions are sometimes found in other languages than the one where they are considered because the practices in any one language of so much as a little importance are nowadays soon understood and "decoded" by specialists in other countries, and that whatever appeal the terms may have in translation is sufficient for stimulating borrowing. This is the case for instance for the term "word form", initially Russian in literal translation (slovoforma) but that you find in German, French and English (Wortform, mot-forme, word form) (Glottopedia). It is not to be inferred then that there exists an inescapable quality of the term that should result in its being revealed separately to several authorities independently of their knowledge of its existence in other languages, a state of affairs which would, if verified, assert the judiciousness of the term.

The judiciousness of the choice of justifying the medical concept on the basis of a general idea of conflicting and neutralized forces is probably not of great importance; any judiciousness will be found to exist on the basis of vague ancestral beliefs that have lost entirely their reputation as scientific evidence, but which nonetheless have remained as cultural facts, and even continue to contribute to shaping our thinking. For instance, Hippocrates' legacy bears witness to that.

(Wikipedia) Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.E.), hypothesized that the body and mind become unwell when the vital fluids in the body become unbalanced. These fluids include black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Too much phlegm causes a person to be fatigued, too much black bile causes depression, yellow bile causes a quick temper, and too much blood causes optimism, cheerfulness, and confidence.

The well known and still potent, essentially religious concept of the struggle of the powers of good and evil in the human mind, is the key to another vein of thinking along the same lines of an idea of opposing forces which has marked human attitude towards psychology. For instance, Freud is known to have brought to his analysis what he thought to be the powerful exemplification of Greek myth and the Christian religion (Œdipus complex, his description of The Moses of Michelangelo)

(Wikipedia) Whitman himself regarded the play [Œdipus Rex] as "the fullest expression of this conception of tragedy," that is the conception of tragedy as a "revelation of the evil lot of man," where a man may have "all the equipment for glory and honor" but still have "the greatest effort to do good" end in "the evil of an unbearable self for which one is not responsible.

I wouldn't make too much of the implications suscitated by the imagery concerning this term, that is, in terms of the medical explanations that it could be inferred to provide.


Addition from 24/5/21, anecdotal considerations

Psychopathy is interpreted as a source of unbalanced behaviour; this is tantamount to calling the unbalanced mind that of a psycopath.

Mateer, Florence (Florence Edna), 1887-1961, author The unstable child: an interpretation of psychopathy as a source of unbalanced behavior in abnormal and troublesome children

(SOED) psychopath A person with chronic psychopathy, especially leading to abnormally irresponsible and antisocial behaviour; loosely a mentally and emotionally unstable or agressive person.

In possession of the formal identification of this mental disorder as elicited from the above sources, it becomes possible, incidentally, to remark that the most appealing theory (humorism, user Joachim) in view of justifying the choice of this term, could very well find postdated validating evidence in modern facts as psycopathy would really be due to a physiological imbalance, that of certain chemicals in the brain.

21-Jun-2003 12:00 AM EDT, by British Medical Journal Psychopathic behaviour seems to be linked to an imbalance in critical brain chemicals, reveals a study of violent and sexual offenders, reported in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

So ill supported are Hippocrates' premises and what was made of them thereafter, that, by modern scientific standards, if "unbalanced" had been considered inspired by this would be medical theory, it had to be concluded until recently that the term did not reflect reality. However, today this medical theory could be scientifically reinstated (except for a matter of vague specificity), or rather be put to rest for ever as well as vindicated (to a great extent), since the main idea of physiological imbalance can be considered a likely cause; By the same token, an ill founded etymology would gain in legitimacy, provided it be verifiable as inspired by Hippocrates' philosophy.

After all, Hippocrates was not far off the mark; however, there remains a gap to be bridged from the solid modern idea of imbalance as contending psychological forces (user BoldBen's comment) and physiological imbalance.


Second addition prompted by conclusions perhaps hasty from user eagle, the OP

There might be a point in this late contention due to user eagle (repeated here for convenience), but I don't find the conclusion convincing.

After receiving the first answers, I began to think that this metaphor arose from humorism or some similar teaching, too. But Sven Yargs gave examples of the oldest uses in his second answer. In them, the authors compare an unstable mind to an unbalanced vessel. Now, I think this metaphor is most likely associated with an unbalanced vessel, which is underloaded, and therefore unstable on the water. In the past vessels used to be common means of transport. So this metaphor could be understood by a wide range of people, in contrast to humorism and the like, which was known to people of science.

Critical information that should perhaps have been mentioned at the outset is the the fact that the term could have began to be used (England, …) in the mid 19th century, that is, not earlier than 1830 (1830 - 1869).

(SOED) unbalance v.t. Throw (a person r thing) off balance; upset the physical or mental balance of. M19.

(SOED) unbalanced a. M17 Not balanced; esp. (of a person etc.) mentally unstable or deranged.

(The adjective is in use already in the period "1630 - 1669"; there is a precision that is missing in my picture, and that is whether the acceptation concerning mental unbalance dates back to the very origins of the form; the verb does not, but are we to infer that the verb was the initial concept? That is a question I'd tend to answer by "no", but serious verification is needed.)

The fact that the medical term has been appropriated by or has been issued from the comparatively modern mind of doctors (post Freudian period I'd say) who were not likely to be cognizant with the antiquated literature found in the post referred to (user Sven Yargs), makes the possibility of direct inspiration shaky. Moreover, it would have to be ascertained first that it is not a borrowing: the modern impetus in the study of the mind was given in France in the second part of the 19th century (with Charcot), and most of all, shortly after, in Austria with Freud (student of Charcot).

There is a certain inkling that tends to let one suppose that the term was inspired by the French "déséquilibré". A research into Google Books from the 19th century will show that the corresponding French term appearing already in a French scientific publication in 1856, was rife in the medical literature of the last part of this century, whereas it is quasi inexistant in the English scientific literature.

déséquilibré 1800 - 1907
unbalanced 1700 - 1943

Finally, in this new reconsideration of the question that aims at making a truer assessment I think that as concerns the material that inspires the contention and what is inferred from this material the following should be added.

1/ swift imaginations unballanced with experience (does not refer to mental illness but to the ability of the mind)

2/ an unballanced vessell reels (like a drunken man) (The unstability is not mental in the sense of "illness" as drunkenness, if not an affection but an intoxication)

3/ wash off from many a seduced and unballanced soule! (Most likely the unbalancing of the soul is on a spiritual level, not in relation to dementia.)

4/ whose zeale is unballanced (It is here obvious that the unbalance has to do with the intensity of emotions.)

5/ they come with unballanced Judgements (The inability to judge rationally can be tied to mental disorder only exceptionally.)

6/ like a light vessell thats unballanced, he rises and fals with every wave, (Here again the term is not found in the context of mental disease, as what we read is an analysis of character.)

7/ (strictly concerned with boats)

8/ wherein the preciousnes of his deare life was imballanced) (As suggested by user Sven Yargs, in this last passage, "unbalanced" is more likely to mean "put at risk".)

It follows that it is not an "unstable" mind in the sense of a sick mind that is compared to an unbalanced vessel but at most, a spiritual trait sown by a given mind, or a character, and at that in only one aspect of that character ("he rises and falls with every wave").

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  • I added examples from other languages because sometimes a similarity of metaphors is not the result of taking them from another language, but is a consequence of the same way of people's thinking in different countries. For example, the sound pitches "low" and "high" metaphors are found in many languages. They are most likely the result of the same way of thinking, associating a high value of sound frequency with something high, and are not the result of borrowing words from one language to another. – Eagle May 22 at 22:54
  • @Eagle The fact that you were wondering at the same "comparisons" being found in other languages let me suppose that you suspected in the medical condition a salient characteristic, which, being recognized by all, led independently various authorities to a naming on the basis of it. In the present case of naming it is obvious that nobody had any assurance of a salient characteristic as the basis for it since the name is apparently rooted subliminally in myth and the like; so, as the most probable process for providing the term was borrowing, I inferred that this latter was inspired (1/2) – LPH May 23 at 15:07
  • @Eagle by a vague appeal that would have had this name in both languages. I aimed therefore at showing that there is not necessarily anything really telling to be derived from such coincidences and at the same time that the present case verifies this contention; of course, this argument might not be flawless, might need the examination of more data. Nevertheless, I do agree with you, there are cases when such a true salient characteristic is the explanation of a coincidence in the naming, either as independently made or as a borrowing. (2/2) – LPH May 23 at 15:08
  • Thank you for your active participation and for the addition to your answer. – Eagle May 24 at 2:34
  • After receiving the first answers, I began to think that this metaphor arose from humorism or some similar teaching, too. But Sven Yargs gave examples of the oldest uses in his second answer. In them, the authors compare an unstable mind to an unbalanced vessel. Now, I think this metaphor is most likely associated with an unbalanced vessel, which is underloaded, and therefore unstable on the water. In the past vessels used to be common means of transport. So this metaphor could be understood by a wide range of people, in contrast to humorism and the like, which was known to people of science. – Eagle May 24 at 2:35

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