Q From Paul Hobson and Michael Grounds: You wrote in the 3 January issue of the newsletter that round the twist is a variation of round the bend. What’s the origin of the latter expression?
A A fascinating set of stories exists to explain this expression, meaning eccentric, crazy or insane.
Two were quoted by my questioners. Michael Grounds mentioned one, that the one-time Hudson River State Hospital near Poughkeepsie in New York State was sited round a bend in the river, so that inmates arriving there literally went round the bend. Paul Hobson gave a closely similar story that referred to the old Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum in Melbourne, which closed in 1925. As it happens, the river Hudson is straight near the Hudson River State Hospital and is some way away, as was the Yarra Bend Asylum from the Yarra. In neither case can one imagine new arrivals being brought by boat.
Several writers to mailing lists online had a different story about its origin, suggesting that mental institutions had long tree-lined driveways that curved at the end so that no one could actually see the buildings. “If you were sent to the loony bin,” one wrote, “you went around the bend in the driveway to get there.“
To counter these tales, all we have is just one entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Frank Bowen’s, Sea slang: a Dictionary of the Old-Timers’ Expressions and Epithets, dated 1929. He said that the phrase was “an old naval term for anybody who is mad.”.
It leaves the story of this idiom in an unsatisfactory state. We are all at sea in two ways. From here on, we are in the realm of imagination and supposition. Readers have pointed out that a bend in maritime terminology is a class of knots, specifically those that either join two ropes or link a rope to something else (or is the latter a hitch? nautical terminology always trips me up). This might suggest restraining a madman at sea by the use of ropes and knots, or the result of the mental stress involved in trying to work out how to tie some of the more fiendishly complicated examples.
There’s also the related term loopy for eccentricity or craziness. Jonathon Green, in the Chambers Slang Dictionary, says that it's likewise nautical slang, dating from slightly later than round the bend; he points to a connection with the Scots loopy, meaning cunning (possibly, as Eric Partridge noted many years ago, an ironic reference).
The conceptual links between round the bend and loopy (and with the more recent round the twist, which seems to have been a humorous reformulation of round the bend) are obvious enough, with the idea being of a person who is twisted or out of true, who is “bent” in a figuratively eccentric way. To what extent round the bend or loopy are linked to knots is unclear, and almost certainly no longer possible to discover.