Clichéwatch: ‘the definition of insanity’

“‘The definition of insanity,’ she cried, ‘is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome!'”

If you don’t read our sketch-writer Michael Deacon, you should. He’s very very funny. The line I’ve just put above, however, is not particularly funny: it’s just a direct quote from Harriet Harman.

It’s a line that gets trotted out from time to time, and you can see why. It’s very handy in political contexts: “My honourable friend has tried [cutting/spending/cracking down on things/etc] so many times in the past – what makes him think it’ll work this time? The definition of insanity is…” and so on. The implication is, my honourable friend is insane, because he’s trying the same thing yet again, and expecting a different result. The quote has been misattributed to Einstein and to Benjamin Franklin, but according to Wikiquote it “was used as a teaching reference at University of California, Irvine in social science lectures in the later 1960s. Also found in a 1981 text from Narcotics Anonymous.”

Of course, it doesn’t really work, because “the same thing over and over again” implies that circumstances never change, and that if [cutting/spending/cracking down/etc] doesn’t work in context A, it won’t work in contexts B to Z either, which is clearly not true. But that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is that it is total and obvious nonsense. It’s not the definition of insanity. It’s not close to the definition of insanity. It’s not even a definition.

The definition of insanity, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is

n. [mass noun] the state of being seriously mentally ill; madness: he suffered from bouts of insanity.
• extreme foolishness or irrationality: it might be pure insanity to take this loan ¦ [count noun] the insanities of our time.

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” would be, at best, a symptom of insanity, or an example of an insanity or insane thing to do.

I doubt anyone actually who uses the phrase expects that if they looked “insanity” up in the dictionary, they would see it. But it’s nonetheless annoying, because it’s such a common trope. There are lots of jokes along the lines of “What’s the definition of agony? A one-armed man hanging off a cliff with an itchy bottom”. The “insanity” one is simply one of them dressed up in slightly more respectable language. Mrs Harman’s line doesn’t tell us anything about the person she’s describing, about the action he or she is taking (I haven’t bothered to find out, I’m afraid), or about insanity. It just tells us that Mrs Harman has a somewhat hackneyed collection of one-liners.

Mind you, there is one of the “what’s the definition of…” lines that I do like, and I think it’s relevant here, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll use it: “What’s the definition of irony? Not knowing the difference between a definition and an example.”


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