‘loony bin’: meaning and origin

The expression loony bin is a facetious appellation for a home or hospital for people with mental illnesses.

A shortened form of lunatic, loony (also looney, luny) means:
– as a noun: a person who is mentally ill; an extremely foolish or eccentric person;
– as an adjective: mentally ill; extremely foolish or eccentric.

These are the earliest occurrences of loony bin that I have found, in chronological order:

1 to 5: From stories by the English author Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975):

1-: From Mike: A Public School Story (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1909):

—as reprinted in 1919 by Adam & Charles Black, London:
Smith [sic] leaned against the mantelpiece in the senior day-room at Outwood’s […] and gave his views on the events of the preceding night, or, rather, of that morning, for it was nearer one than twelve when peace had once more fallen on the school.
“Nothing that happens in this luny-bin,” said Psmith, “has power to surprise me now. There was a time when I might have thought it a little unusual to have to leave the house through a canvas shoot at one o’clock in the morning, but I suppose it’s quite the regular thing here. Old school tradition, &c.”

2-: From Doing Clarence a Bit of Good 1, a short story first published in The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly (London: George Newnes, Ltd.) of May 1913:

On the wall close to the door […] was a large oil-painting. It was what you’d call a Classical picture, I suppose. What I mean is—well, you know what I mean. All I can say is that it’s funny I hadn’t noticed it.
“Is that the ‘Venus’?” I said.
She nodded.
“How would you like to have to look at that every time you sat down to a meal?”
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t think it would affect me much. I’d worry through all right.”
She jerked her head impatiently.
“But you’re not an artist,” she said. “Clarence is.”
And then I began to see daylight. What exactly was the trouble I didn’t understand, but it was evidently something to do with the good old Artistic Temperament, and I could believe anything about that. It explains everything. It’s like the Unwritten Law, don’t you know, which you plead in America if you’ve done anything they want to send you to chokey for and you don’t want to go. What I mean is, if you’re absolutely off your rocker, but don’t find it convenient to be scooped into the luny-bin, you simply explain that, when you said you were a tea-pot, it was just your Artistic Temperament, and they apologize and go away.

1 Doing Clarence a Bit of Good was republished in the collection of short stories My Man Jeeves (London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1919).

3-: From the novel Indiscretions of Archie (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1921):

Archie […] reflected that artists as a class were all pretty weird and rummy and talked more or less consistently through their hats. You couldn’t ever take an artist’s opinion on a picture. Nine out of ten of them had views on Art which would have admitted them to any looney-bin, and no questions asked.

4-: From Jeeves the Blighter 2, a short story published in Cosmopolitan (New York: International Magazine Company (Cosmopolitan Magazine)) of April 1922:

Sir Roderick Glossop, Honoria’s father, is always called a nerve specialist, because it sounds better, but everybody knows that he’s really a sort of janitor to the loony-bin. I mean to say, when your uncle the Duke begins to feel the strain a bit and you find him in the blue drawing room sticking straws in his hair, old Glossop is the first person you send for. He toddles round, gives the patient the once-over, talks about overexcited nervous systems, and recommends complete rest and seclusion and all that sort of thing. Practically every push family in the country has called him in at one time or another, and I suppose that being in that position, I mean constantly having to sit on people’s heads while their nearest and dearest ’phone to the asylum to send round the wagon, does tend to make a chappie take what you might call a warped view of humanity.

2 Jeeves the Blighter was incorporated into The Inimitable Jeeves (London: Herbert Jenkins – New York: George H. Doran – 1923).

5-: From Leave it to Psmith, published in The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia: The Curtis Publishing Company) of 3rd March 1923:

“I wanted so much to discuss your wonderful poetry with you. You haven’t so much as mentioned your work since you came here, have you?”
“Ah, but, you see, I am trying to keep my mind off it.”
“Really? Why?”
“My medical adviser warned me that I had been concentrating a trifle too much. He offered me the choice, in fact, between a complete rest and the loony bin.”
“The what, Mr. McTodd?”
“The lunatic asylum, he meant. These medical men express themselves oddly.”

__________

 

6-: From the Hamilton Evening Journal (Hamilton, Ohio) of Monday 19th October 1925:

No Chance For Repeal Of Volstead Law
Any person who expects that the next session of Congress, or any other session of Congress now in sight, is going to repeal the Volstead act wins the sheet-iron golf socks for 1925, and is entitled to a free one-way ticket to the looney bin.

7-: From Just Summing It Up: Some Weird 1925 Statistics, by Roy K. Moulton 3, published in the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Saturday 2nd January 1926:

Cafe jazz musicians to the number of 178 have gone crazy and have been removed to the looney bin. There are no figures on the number of cafe customers similarly affected, but they will run up into the thousands.

3 Roy Kenneth Moulton (1874-1928) was a U.S. humorist and columnist.

8-: From Why Worry About Home When You Can Sleep in the Sedan?, by Roy K. Moulton, published in the Detroit Evening Times (Detroit, Michigan) of Sunday 31st January 1926:

There is no place like home when you have got to have some real estate for bond purposes to get you out of jail for speeding. Yes, a home is a nice place when you have got to swear you are a property owner so the police will not chuck you in the loony-bin.

9-: From On Thrills, by Roy K. Moulton, published in the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Thursday 4th November 1926:

As soon as the real American finds himself in a place where he is not forced to live in an atmosphere of suppressed or expressed excitement, he dries up and blows away like the tumbleweed of the lonely prairies.
It is very fortunate that the American is thus constituted. If he were not, the entire race would be in the looney-bin within a week.

10-: From The Unfair Sex: A Farcical Comedy in Three Acts (London: S. French, Limited, 1927), by Eric Hudson:

Harvey (excitedly). Oh, blow the girls in my novels! You’re right, they don’t exist—and if they did, they ought to be put in a looney-bin!

11-: From an article by William A. Caldwell, about two boxers, Lou Guglielmini and Marty Silvers, published in the Bergen Evening Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) of Wednesday 22nd June 1927:

Lou Guglielmini, who in the interests of time-saving allows you to call him Googy, and Marty Silvers, whom he meets tomorrow night at Madonna Field, Englewood, in the final bout of the opening card of a summer program under the Englewood Elks, ended up their training today. This was according to schedule.
[…]
Guglielmini, we are glad to say, doesn’t mind being called Googy. If he did he would have mighty few rooters. Try to shout, “Go get ’em Guglielmini,” five or six times, and then send for the wagon from the loony bin.

12-: From At Random In Sportdom, by William A. Caldwell, published in the Bergen Evening Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) of Friday 1st July 1927:

The younger fistic generation of Passaic County is slowly and positively pushing out of the limelight Bergen County’s veteran ear-scramblers. Very few young fighters are coming up in Bergen County right now, and the older men are leaving the game either by their own volition or because it is a choice between retirement and the looney bin.

13-: From the review of Man Power 4, by Don Roberts, published in the Los Angeles Record (Los Angeles, California) of Friday 1st July 1927:

Richard Dix make balky tractors work, saves the town from destruction and wins the dainty heroine, Mary Brian, in a fast and furious mellerdrammer, “Man Power,” at the Metropolitan this week.
And how Richard does it! The god old hero stuff is back. Dix, as Tom Roberts, ex-tank corp captain, just makes all other inhabitants of Peaceful Valley look as if they were candidates for the looney-bin.

4 Man Power (1927) is a U.S. film directed by Clarence G. Badger (1880-1964), starring Richard Dix (Ernst Carlton Brimmer – 1893-1949) and Mary Brian (Louise Byrdie Dantzler – 1906-2002).

14-: From This Waggish World, about the “Anti-Note-Signing League of America”, by Roy K. Moulton, published in The Minneapolis Morning Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota) of Sunday 13th November 1927:

For many years agone note-signing by innocent and trusting boobs for dark, sinister and scheming financial wizards has been the bane of many an existence. The first thing our new league will do will be to prevail upon congress to pass just one more law—a law making the signing of a note for an acquaintance or a friend a crime and providing that when any person signs a note for a relative he shall be immediately incarcerated in some good loony-bin without benefit of alienists.

The expression loony bin has come to be shortened to bin—as in the following extract from Scoop (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1938), by the English novelist Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh (1903-1966):

‘I want to get away from London,’ said John Boot.
‘So it’s come to that? All on account of your American girl?’
‘Well, mostly.’
‘I warned you before you began. Is she being frightful?’
‘My lips are sealed. But I’ve got to get far away or else go crazy.’
‘To my certain knowledge she’s driven three men into the bin.’