A Maddening Crowd of Errors

John Sitter, a Notre Dame English professor, recently wrote this to me:

     I've just recently discovered your very useful site on usage and have recommended it highly to my students.  I wish I'd found it much sooner.

    I think there is an error in regard to “madding,” which is not an archaic form of “maddening” but a different word, meaning something like “running mad” or “behaving madly.”  E.g., in his Episte to Dr. Arbuthnot, Pope imagines being beset by bad writers who, “Fire in each eye, papers in each hand, / Rave, recite, and madden round the land.”

    Of course, it's often the case that those who madden are also maddening, Lord knows.   But I think Gray's direct comment is about the behavior of the crowd rather than on its effect on him.

     Again, many thanks for your good work(s).

                   With all best wishes,


I knew that “maddding” in modern contexts was usually an allusion to the title of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd,” but I didn't realize that his title was itself an allusion to a line in Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” when the word “madding” was more commonly used. Hardy revived and perpetuated the word, but modern writers rarely understand what he meant by it.

Here's what I replied to Prof. Sitter:

The Oxford English Dictionary supplies two meanings for the adjective “madding.”

 1. Becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied. Now chiefly in far from the madding crowd  [in allusion to Gray's and Hardy's uses (see quots. 1751, 1874)] : (of a place) secluded, removed from public notice; also in other phrases modelled on this.

2. That makes a person mad; maddening. Obs.

The second one is the meaning you object to, and the first example given is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1592), but as you see the OED considers it obsolete.

I think you’re right that most people derive it from Gray via Hardy and get it wrong, but it’s often difficult to guess which meaning is intended.

Only recently has the media madding crowd come around to some kind of consensus about it just being racist as hell.http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/24/donald-trump-victory-nevada-caucus-voter-anger

With March sweeps coming up, I plan to retreat to the oasis of PBS, far from the madding crowd of screaming pundits, tasteless sitcoms, and disturbing crime shows—not to mention commercials. http://wvpublic.org/post/too-many-tv-choices-watch-pbs-and-chill

Most journalists seem to intend the word to mean “noisy, teaming, busy,” which doesn’t exactly match either of these definitions.

The sole definition offered by Webster’s online seem to reflect this usage:

 acting in a frenzied manner —usually used in the phrase madding crowd to denote especially the crowded world of human activity and strife <built his home far from the madding crowd

I wonder how many writers even know about Hardy’s novel. I’m sure hardly any of them know about Gray. Hardy used the term when it had already become antiquated, and without a context that would provide the reader with his intended meaning unless they already knew Gray. It’s not surprising that the word has drifted.

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