As I write this, I'm watching two loons floating calmly across a mountain lake in the northern Adirondacks. Oops — make that one loon; the other one just dived beneath the surface.
This ornithological display makes me wonder if the word "loon" means a bird is related to "loony" or "lunatic," meaning crazy. After all, loons do engage in somewhat eccentric displays and occasionally emit a semi-maniacal tremolo, a human-like laugh described by Henry David Thoreau as "unearthly" and "demoniac."
Or perhaps "loon," like "lunatic," originated with "lunar." Indeed, the bird's haunting tremolo is often heard on moonlit nights.
Nice tries. "Loon," which first appeared in English during the early 1600s, is believed to be derived from the Scandinavian term for the loon, "lomr."
The "loon" that means "a crazy, foolish or silly person" comes from the Middle English "loun." Originally, this "loon," which entered English in the 1400s, meant "a lout, idler, rogue," and later this negative definition was extended to mean "a crazy person or simpleton."
"Lunatic," derived from the Latin "luna" (moon), entered English during the 1300s because many people back then believed insanity was caused by the phases of the moon. This notion survives today in our myths about werewolves and vampires which, of course, aren't true. Right? Right?
Meanwhile, "loony," an adjective form of "lunatic," emerged during the late 1800s, giving us such colorful 20th-century expressions such as "loony bin" and "loony tunes."
The latter term, originally used to describe a Hollywood studio's animated cartoons, was memorably deployed by President Ronald Reagan to deride Libyan dictator Mu'ammar Gadhafi and his ilk.
What's fascinating is that the "loon" meaning a mentally unbalanced person, while originally derived from the Middle English "loun," has been seriously amped up in its "crazy" meaning by two other linguistic power sources:
"lunatic" (an insane person) and "loon" (a slightly unhinged bird).
A triple-pronged plug! How could "loony" mean anything else?
Meanwhile, the designation of the bird as a "loon," originally derived from a Scandinavian term, is reinforced by its "loony" (oddball) and "lunar" (nocturnal) behavior. Another triple play!
It's as if a man named "Mason" who worked as a mason was also a Mason (member of the Freemasons)!