In honor of tonight’s premiere of a new season of Mad Men and the conclusion last week of the annual American rite of basketball, what about mad? Americans tend to use the word as a synonym for “angry.” The OED shows that it appeared in Britain this way as early as the 1400s but gradually lost favor there, even as it was being adopted early and enthusiastically in the United States. Horace Greeley (1811-1872) said: “My God! This is a great country—when it gets mad!” That last phrase had a colloquial feel as late as 1902, when William James put it in quotation marks in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “He can’t ‘get mad’ at any of his alternatives; and the career of a man beset by such an all-round amiability is hopeless.” For some years, it has been impossible to avoid the catchphrase “Don’t get mad—get even.” The Yale Book of Quotations quotes a 1967 Chicago Tribune article describing this “as a venerable slogan in Massachusetts politics.”
The quintessentially British meaning of mad, of course, is the mad of the Noel Coward songs “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Mad About the Boy”: that is, mad meaning crazy, twisted, oobie shoobie, you know, flip city.
Few if any Americans would call or refer to a nutty person as mad, because listeners would assume the meaning was “angry.” However, this meaning of the word has persisted and thrived in other forms and in idioms. Madness is pretty common, notably in March Madness, itself, which was apparently used to refer to Indiana high-school basketball tournaments as far back as 1931. Other examples include the word madman and phrases like mad, mad scientist, mad cow disease, and an expression used by both Duke Ellington and Jim Morrison. Ellington’s motto was “I love you madly.” The Doors, meanwhile, used it in possibly the worst lyrical couplet in the Western canon: “Don’t ya love her madly/Wanna be her daddy.”
Americans have also made creative use of the the double meaning of mad, possibly starting with Mad Magazine. The publication was created in 1952 as a comic book with the cover line “Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD.” In Stanley Kramer’s 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the constantly hollering all-star cast indeed seemed to be both very aggravated and not in the best mental health. The dual meaning probably helped the line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!,” from Network, become a classic. The TV series Mad About You was a flat-out pun, and the title of Mad Men is a remarkable four-way play on words. It invokes the “crazy” and “angry” uses of mad, the phrase ad men, and Madison Avenue, where ad men work.
Meanwhile, another prominent meaning for mad has come out of African-American slang, as an intensifier. This can be an adverb, as in the movie Mad Hot Ballroom, or an adjective. You know what I mean if you’re a skateboarder. If you don’t have mad skills, you had better hang it up.