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Brainstorming

The Daily Mail ran a story this week that the Welsh Development Agency has sent its staff on training courses in which they were told not to use this expression for fear of upsetting a person with a mental illness or disability.

Few of us would regard the word so negatively, though we might once have done so. That’s because brainstorm has had two distinct senses, one created in Britain, the other in the United States. The British one is older, recorded in a medical dictionary compiled in 1894 by George Gould. He defined it as “a succession of sudden and severe phenomena, due to some cerebral disturbance”, or in other words a transient fit of insanity. British writers used it in the following years, as P G Wodehouse did facetiously in Mike in 1909: “‘He’s off his nut.’ ‘I know. But what did he do? How did the brainstorm burst? Did he jump at you from behind a door and bite a piece out of your leg, or did he say he was a tea-pot?’”

The word was almost unknown in the USA until a sensational murder trial in March 1907. Under the headline “New York Adds a Term to its Slang vocabulary”, the Washington Post wrote: “It may be that this word occurs somewhere in the literature of insanity, but nobody excepting, possibly, a few professional students of that sort of thing had ever heard of it until Dr. Evans declared upon the witness stand that that was what ailed Harry Thaw on the night when he shot Stanford White.” Dr Evans argued that the defendant had a sudden burst of insanity, a brainstorm, that caused him to want to take revenge. This defence or something like it has often been used since, though in 1919 the Trenton Evening Times commented that it was “more or less a fake defense in the field of criminal jurisprudence”.

Around the late 1920s or thereabouts — in the USA in particular — the term began to refer to a flash of mental activity leading to a bright idea. This developed into the modern sense of an intense and often informal group discussion aimed at generating ideas and ways of solving problems. This later sense is known at least by 1940, to judge from the Times Recorder of Zanesville, Ohio, dated 5 September 1940: “This constant scientific work was not done in any eager volunteer brainstorming by ambitious army enthusiasts.” But a link with the idea of an eccentric genius or mad scientist who had productive flashes of inspiration was certainly known in Britain in the interwar years, to judge from the odd-bod inventor created by Norman Hunter, whose first book, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, came out in 1933.

The group-creation sense came across the water to Britain during the Second World War and is now the most common one. Both in the USA and here, it has entirely eclipsed the mental illness sense, so much so that I have to assume that the promulgator of the advice is guessing that the word might conceivably be misunderstood in that way rather than taking note of its early history. The ruling is clearly an earnest and well-meant attempt at preventing unnecessary distress, but it is easy to mock it — as the Daily Mail did — as political correctness gone mad. However, the Welsh Development Agency points out that it is responsible under the Race Relations Act and disability legislation to train staff in equality and diversity issues.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Sep. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-bra3.htm
Last modified: 25 September 2004.