frenzy, phrensy, frenetic, phrenitic, frantic

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, he occasionally uses the word phrensies.

Well, now, that just seems like a fancy way to spell frenzies, doesn’t it? With that posh classical ph that shows up in scientific terms and assorted BS, not to mention slang here and there. It sort of makes the user look like he’s got a swollen head, so to speak. And the s in place of the z – it makes it look more like pansies or perhaps a bit of palsies, and perhaps phrases and nephritis and…

But it also makes it look like it’s related to the Greek root ϕρεν phren “heart, mind”, from which we get the once-popular phrenology “study of the mind through the shape of the brain and cranium”. Is it? Could our wild, fuzzy, crazy frenzy come somehow from a pretentious-looking Greek root?

Oh yes. It did all start with the Greeks. In the beginning was ϕρενῖτις phrenitis, “delirium”, literally “mind disease” – I’m sure you recognize the itis, which now normally refers to swelling. But we don’t think of a swollen head as being the same as delirium! A swollen brain, on the other hand, may cause delirium… that’s the modern use of phrenitis.

From that, anyway, we get the adjective form phrenitic, which English has had since the 1600s. But we had a cognate term rather sooner – a person afflicted with phrenitis was, in Latin, phreneticus, which passed through French to become, by the 1300s, English frenetic.

You know that word, of course! It may have originally meant “delirious, temporarily mad”, but it came to refer to particularly energetic bursts of madness, mania, wild excitation… and from that it was applied more loosely to over-rapid activity generally: the kind of fever-pitched hectic energetic flurry that leaves you frazzled. It may be an overstatement to match that to a scrambled brain infecter, but exaggeration is the mode of such things.

And if you’re so wild with busy distraction that you don’t even have time for that extra et in frenetic, you go with its sister term, also brought to us by way of French from phreneticus: frantic. That energetic /ε/ opens wider to an almost-wailing /æ/. Frantic sounds more like panting and hand-waving and calamity and can’t handle it. Also more like France, but I’m sure that’s just coincidence…

Phrensy and frenzy, for their part, are from a pseudo-Greek formation in Latin, phrenesis, again by way of French; the original meaning is “delirium; temporary insanity; mental derangement”. The phormer, the phancy spelling, is rarely used now, typically just phor prophetic ecstasy or demonic possession.

All of these words have that opening /fr/ sound that you get in frustration and fright and, on the other hand, frig and frottage. It reminds me of the rocket-taking-off sound that my Mac Mail makes when I send an email, all friction and liquid, fading into the blue, but when you say it your mouth is tight and clutched up: lips biting, tongue curled. A tense sound. And on the other hand they all also have the /n/, that nasal on the tongue-tip, a sound capable of sustained personal intensity.

And they are all, as a group, emblematic of English word formation and derivation. It can drive a person frantic. Not that it’s usually all that frenetic or frenzied – it takes place over time: a delirium, yes, but a tremendous delirium as words are gradually withdrawn from their origins and made – I was going to say our friends, for the frenzy echo, but do friends treat friends as we treat our words? or as our words treat us?

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