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“Much madness is divinest sense,” wrote the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson—”Assent, and you are sane; / Demur—you’re straightway dangerous, / And handled with a chain.” The chains may have gone, but the language of sanity remains a divisive field; one in which, at least linguistically, the majority’s assent can still tend towards brutality.

The word “insane” was first used in 1560 and derives from the Latin insanus. Its etymology—in means “not” and sanus means “sound or healthy”—is a simple clue to the difficulties of discussing mental health. Since ancient times, madness has been defined as a deviation from a norm…

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