The ‘lunatic’ vote

The chances are if you ask a mental health expert what significant step the nation can take toward mental health parity and a keener awareness of mental health issues, a bill that passed the House of Representatives yesterday wouldn’t be on the list.

By a 398-1 vote, the House voted to ban the use of the word “lunatic” from federal legislation, one of the few times the House has agreed with the Senate.

“Federal law should reflect the 21st Century understanding of mental illness and disease, and that the continued use of this pejorative term has no place in the US code,” Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said.

The word still appears in some parts of federal law – a section of financial regulation, for example, addresses the power of a bank to act as a “committee of estates of lunatics.”

The problem is the use of the word as an actualnoun to reference to people with mental illness, not as an adjective for people who don’t.

Curiously, the use of the word idiots was not included, as in this 1966 federal law on the time allowed to sue the federal government:


Words in subsec. (a) of this revised section, “person under legal disability or beyond the seas at the time the claim accrues” were substituted for “claims of married women, first accrued during marriage, of persons under the age of twenty-one years, first accrued during minority, and of idiots, lunatics, insane persons, and persons beyond the seas at the time the claim accrued, entitled to the claim.” (See reviser’s note under section 2501 of this…

Or this 1950s amendment on how sentences are to be constructed…


words used in the present tense include the future as well as the present; the words “insane” and “insane person” and “lunatic” shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis; the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;

A search of federal code turned up only a half-dozen pieces of legislation involving the word lunatics.

By congressional standards, the bill raced through the Capitol. It was first proposed last April.

  • Kevin Watterson

    We did this at the state level a few years ago with a lot of words.

  • jon

    “the words “insane” and “insane person” and “lunatic” shall include every idiot”

    That’s almost bumper sticker material.

  • vjacobsen

    OK, this begs the question: Who was the 1 who voted against the bill?