Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Jan 22, 2017 9:00 pm


I just started reading The Alienist (1994) the first in a series of detective stories by Caleb Carr. The book is a soon-to-be television series, which is due out sometime in 2017.

My first thought was that the word ‘alienist’ was created by the author and wasn’t a bona fide word. Turns out I was wrong and ‘alienist’ is a real word, although not often used nowadays.



Now historical

[[Note: The OED has recently introduced a scoring system titled "Frequency (in current use)" with the score ranging from 1 to 8. 'Alienist' scored a 3, but that's higher than I would have expected, but that's probably due to the book .]]

Origin: A borrowing from French. Etymons: French aliéniste, médecin aliéniste.

Etymology: from French aliéniste (1845 or earlier), use as noun of aliéniste (adjective) of or relating to the insane (especially in médecin aliéniste psychiatrist (1835 or earlier)) from alien- (in aliéné insane person (1812), use as noun of past participle of aliéner (reflexive) to become insane: see ALIEN v.) + -iste -IST suffix.

A psychiatrist; (in later use chiefly) specifically one who specializes in acting as an expert in court to assess whether a defendant is sane and can therefore be held criminally responsible for his or her crime.

The following are quotes from the OED:
[1854 “It is the characteristic of proper asylums for the insane, that by their social and home-like arrangements they alone can realize that modern system which the French aliénists have called the ‘general moral treatment’, and which I would suggest to call the ‘medico-moral treatment of the insane.’”—Asylum Journal, No 6 page 91/2]

<1864 “A distinguished alienist, and Member of the Belgian Lunacy Commission.”—Social Science Review, Vol. 1, page 447>

<1872 “If the two ‘reputable’ physicians were in good repute as alienists, there would be reason in submitting to their judgement the liberty of a citizen.”—Chapters on Social Science (1877) by G.L.Harrison, page 254>

<1881 “All alienists are agreed as to the greater frequency of mental alienation in the summer season.”—in Nature by H. Morselli, 29 December, page 193/2>

1941 “Three alienists have been named in Paris to judge the sanity of Paul Collette, the young Frenchman who wounded Pierre Laval.”—Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 4 September, Page 1/7>

<1966 “If that was what he thought, he was in urgent need of an alienist.”—When Eight Bells Toll by A. MacLean, viii. page 174>

<1997 “Progressive alienistspinned therapeutic faith on the architecture and atmosphere of their asylums.”—Greatest Benefit to Mankind by R. Porter, xvi. Page 502>


alienist noun: A physician who has been accepted by a court of law as an expert on the mental competence of principals or witnesses appearing before it.


alienist noun:

1. Formerly, a doctor specializing in the treatment of mental illness.

2. An expert witness in a sanity trial.


Well, I have to wrap it up, I have an appointment with my alienist. (<:)

Ken Greenwald — January 22, 2017

Re: alienist

Post by tony h » Mon Jan 23, 2017 2:54 pm

Does the book use it correctly?
Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: alienist

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 23, 2017 7:17 pm

Hi tony,

Yes it does.

Ken — January 23, 2017

Re: alienist

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Jan 25, 2017 3:32 am

Well I walked right in. Ken I saw the word and thought the book was about a person who was a specialist in alien species.

WoZ in orbit
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: alienist

Post by Phil White » Wed Feb 01, 2017 2:42 am

Now that you mention it, it's one of those words I knew I know, but did not for the life of me remember either where I knew it from or what the bloody hell it actually means.

I do have a very loose definition of "know"...

In retrospect, it may have been from Sebastian Faulks' "Human Traces".
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Re: alienist

Post by trolley » Wed Feb 01, 2017 5:33 am

As so often happens, you can go your whole life having never heard a particular word and then as soon as someone mentions it, it starts to crop up. I am reading a murder mystery set in my home town of Victoria, British Columbia during the 1860s. It is called "The Devil's Making" by Sean Haldane. This morning I read this:

The lectures are to be given by 'one Dr. Richard McRory, notable San Francisco Alienist who has taken up residence in Victoria'. Dickens is said to have dabbled in Mesmerism. In England both it and phrenology are past their zenith. But 'alienist' is new-fangled. I'd use the more old fashioned term 'Mad-Doctor'

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