lunatic fringe / fringe

Like a lot of famous people, Theodore Roosevelt is often given credit for coining words he did not actually invent. The Oxford English Dictionary defines lunatic fringe as “a minority group of adherents to a political or other movement or set of beliefs,” and has a quotation from Roosevelt’s 1913 History as Literature as its first citation of the usage:

There is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement.1

Roosevelt was fond of the phrase. He uses it twice in his Autobiography and once again in an article published in Outlook magazine, all in 1913. From the Autobiography:

Then, among the wise and high-minded people who in self-respecting and genuine fashion strive earnestly for peace, there are the foolish fanatics always to be found in such a movement and always discrediting it—the men who form the lunatic fringe in all reform movements.

As I have already said, there is a lunatic fringe to every reform movement.2

And from the magazine:

The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.3

But Roosevelt did not coin the term, although he certainly should be given credit for popularizing its political use. Instead, the term comes to us from the world of hairstyling. Lunatic fringe was used in the late nineteenth century to describe bangs. And fringe is still used this way in Britain. From Oliver’s Optics Magazine, February 1874:

“The girls!” exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the “lunatic fringe” of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead.

The Wheeling Daily Register, July 24, 1875:

“LUNATIC Fringe” is the name given to the fashion of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang down over the forehead.

And Chicago Inter Ocean, May 24, 1876

The “lunatic fringe” is still the mode in New York hair-dressing.4

These quotations predate the OED’s citation for fringe as a hairstyle, which is from the 29 July 1876 issue of Queen:

Curled or waved fringes for the front hair.

Fringe comes to us from the Middle English frenge, dating to the 14th century. (The shift from /e/ to /i/ is typical before /nge/ and also occurs in hinge and singe.) It was borrowed from the Old French frenge, which ultimately comes from the Latin fimbria, meaning “border, edge.” (The metathesis of /r/ moving to the first syllable probably occurred in the unattested Vulgar Latin, *frimbia.)5


1Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd Edition, s.v. lunatic, a. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50136810. Accessed 3 October 2010.

2Roosevelt, Theodore. Autobiography. (New York: Macmillan, 1913) www.bartleby.com. Accessed 3 October 2010.

3Shapiro, Fred R., editor, The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 649.

4Shapiro, Fred R. “You Can Quote Them.” Yale Alumni Magazine. September/October 2010. http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2010_09/arts_fredshapiro061.html. Accessed 3 October 2010.

5Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd Edition, s.v. fringe, n. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50090044. Accessed 3 October 2010.

(Hat tip to Languagehat for pointing out the 2010 Shapiro article to me.)

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