The Meaning of Stir Crazy: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever wondered what the English phrase stir crazy means? Maybe you have seen it in crosswords or articles. This guide will give you all of the necessary knowledge on the phrase stir crazy, including its definition, etymology, sentence examples, and more!

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What is the definition of stir-crazy?

According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase “stir-crazy” or “stir crazy” (pronounced stur krae-zee or ˈstɜrˌkreɪ zi) is a British English adjective that means one is distraught or has been driven insane by prolonged confinement. This phrase can be used to literally mean that someone is showing signs of mental illness by being imprisoned, according to Oxford English Dictionary, but it can also be used in a figurative or melodramatic sense to mean that one is annoyed or frustrated by being kept inside. One could go stir crazy if they were physically imprisoned, especially in isolation, but they could also go stir-crazy by being quarantined, trapped in their home by rain or other intense weather,  or stuck somewhere due to a road block.

What are synonyms for the phrase stir crazy?

Many people believe that the phrase stir crazy may be insensitive or insulting to those who suffer from actual mental illness, and that the word crazy should not be used in figurative contexts. In this case, there are numerous phrases one can use in place of the phrase stir crazy. These are listed below, from Thesaurus

  • Cabin fever
  • Antsy
  • Fidgety
  • Restless
  • Confined
  • Impatient
  • Edgy
  • Anxious
  • On pins and needles
  • Nervous
  • Twitchy
  • Unrestful
  • Up the wall
  • Wires
  • Restive
  • Jerky
  • Hyper
  • Jittery
  • Jumpy
  • Uneasy

What is the origin of the phrase stir crazy?

According to Mashed Radish and Etymonline, the phrase stir crazy began as a prison slang term in the 19th century. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology states that the word stir likely originated as a variation of the word start, which was a nickname that prisoners and other criminals gave to the Lonson prison Newgate. From this, the word start, and by definition stir, began to be synonymous with the term for prison in general.

It is likely that the word start was stolen from the Romani people, ironically. They use the word “stardo” which means “imprisoned.” The slang start may have even skipped over being specifically used for newgate prison. IT could have been shortened directly from the Romani word “sturiben,” meaning “prison” or “staripen” meaning “to imprison.”

The word stir was first used to mean prison in the 1851 journalistic investigation London Labour and the London Poor, written by Henry Mayhew. In this, prisoners that were interviewed mentioned themselves and others being “in stir” or “out of stir” to refer to if they were in or out of jail or prison. Then, by the early 20th century, the word stir had made its way to the United States.

It was in the United States that “crazy” was added onto the end of the word stir to create a term that refers to the mental illness one suffers after a long imprisonment. This phrase had many variants, including stir-bug, stir-nut, stir-psycho, stir-simple, stir-batty, stir-happy, and stir-looney. All of these were used to refer to prisoners who had gone stir-crazy, but the phrase stir-crazy won out as the most popular over time.

There are also other slang terms that use the word stir to refer to prison. These include stir hustler, referring to one that has mastered being in prison; this might include someone who has an underground business or knows how to fool the guards or trick people into getting what they want. There is also a stir lawyer, which is a fellow prisoner who offers legal advice to other detainees, though they do not have any qualifications. 

How can stir crazy be used in a sentence?

Stir-crazy can be used in many different sentences. This is a commonly used phrase, so it is likely that the listener will know what the speaker is talking about. In this first example, Jack and Haley are snowed into their apartment. 

Haley: Jack, I’m going a little stir-crazy here. We’ve been snowed in for like a week! I want to experience out first New York City winter, not watch it through a window.

Jack: I know dear, but all of the subways are down and the snow is three feet deep. I promise, we wouldn’t enjoy it.

Haley: I know, it’s just frustrating.

Jack: How about this? I can make you some stir-fry for your stir-craziness, and we can cuddle up and watch a movie?

Haley: That sounds good.

Here, Haley uses the phrase stir crazy to tell Jack that she feels restless by being trapped inside their apartment for a week because of the weather. In this next example, Leslie has been in the hospital after having knee surgery. Her wife Ann visits her.

Ann: Hi honey, how are you feeling? The pain any better?

Leslie: At this point, I’m not in any pain. I’m just going stir-crazy. All I want to do is get up and move around, but all I can do is sit here and flip between the same four channels.

Ann: I know it’s frustrating. I’m sorry.

Overall,  the trending phrase stir crazy has been around since the early 20th century and is used to refer to the mental illness or frustration and annoyance that come with being trapped inside for a long time, whether due to imprisonment, illness, weather, or any other number of reasons. Next time you’re feeling stir crazy when you’re snowed in, be grateful that it isn’t in an old prison!

Sources:

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stir-crazy
  2. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/stir-crazy#:~:text=stir%2Dcrazy-,adjective,I%20stay%20in%20all%20weekend!
  3. https://mashedradish.com/2017/03/27/etymology-of-the-day-what-is-the-stir-in-stir-crazy/#:~:text=Beginning%20as%20a%20slang%20term,notorious%20prison%20throughout%20London’s%20history.
  4. https://www.etymonline.com/word/stir-crazy
  5. https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/stir-crazy