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Pronounced /ˈmætɔɪd/Help with pronunciation

The definition given this word by its inventor, the nineteenth-century Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso was “semi-insane”. He believed that criminality was inherited and that a criminal was born with physical defects identifying him as a degenerate human being, an atavism. He created mattoid from the Italian matto, insane, plus the ending -oid for some likeness or resemblance (from Greek eidos, form). He used it for what psychiatrists call “borderline dwellers”, those who exist on the margins between reason and madness — in everyday speech we might call them cranks, eccentrics, or misfits.

The word came into English in 1891 through a translation of his work Man of Genius and became popular for a while. H G Wells used it in several of his books, most notably in Mankind in the Making of 1903, in which he derides the theories of Lombroso and the Victorian phrenologists: “Among such theorists none at present are in quite such urgent need of polemical suppression as those who would persuade the heedless general reader that every social failure is necessarily a ‘degenerate’, and who claim boldly that they can trace a distinctly evil and mischievous strain in that unfortunate miscellany which constitutes ‘the criminal class’... These mattoid scientists make a direct and disastrous attack upon the latent self-respect of criminals.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Jan. 2006

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-mat1.htm
Last modified: 21 January 2006.