Understanding the Idiom: "lunatics have taken over the asylum" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Said to originate in a 1919 remark by Richard A. Rowland about the founding of United Artists. Perhaps an allusion to the short story by Edgar Allan Poe, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, first published 1845.

The phrase “lunatics have taken over the asylum” is an idiom that has been used for many years to describe a situation where people who are not qualified or competent have taken control of a situation. This idiom is often used in situations where there is chaos or disorder, and it implies that those in charge are behaving in an irrational or crazy manner.

To begin with, let us examine what the word “lunatic” means. A lunatic is someone who suffers from mental illness, particularly one that affects their behavior or mood. The term comes from the Latin word “luna,” which means moon, as it was once believed that changes in the moon’s phases could cause madness.

When we say that “lunatics have taken over the asylum,” we mean that people who are acting irrationally or without proper qualifications have gained control of a situation. This can refer to any type of scenario, from politics to business to personal relationships.

This idiom has been used frequently in literature and popular culture. For example, it appears in George Bernard Shaw’s play “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” where a character says: “It seems as if all our lunatics had left their asylums.” It has also been referenced in films such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and TV shows like “The Simpsons.”

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum”

The idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum” is a phrase used to describe a situation where those who are supposed to be in charge have lost control, and chaos reigns. The origins of this phrase can be traced back to the late 19th century, when mental asylums were still common and often poorly run.

The Origins of the Phrase

The word “lunatic” comes from the Latin word “luna,” meaning moon. In ancient times, it was believed that madness was caused by changes in the phases of the moon. This belief persisted into medieval times and beyond, leading to widespread fear and superstition surrounding mental illness.

In England during the 19th century, many people with mental illnesses were confined to asylums. These institutions were often overcrowded, understaffed, and poorly funded. Patients were frequently subjected to cruel treatment and neglect.

Historical Context

The phrase “lunatics have taken over the asylum” gained popularity in Britain during World War II. It was used by soldiers returning from battle who felt that their country had been overrun by incompetent leaders who had no idea what they were doing.

Today, this idiom is still used to describe situations where those in power seem unable or unwilling to address problems effectively. It highlights a sense of frustration with authority figures who are seen as out-of-touch or incapable of dealing with complex issues.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum”

The idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum” is a common expression used to describe a situation where people who are considered crazy or irrational have gained control of a particular situation. This phrase has been used in various contexts, including politics, business, and even personal relationships.

One variation of this idiom is “the inmates are running the asylum,” which carries a similar meaning but with a more specific reference to prisons or mental institutions. Another variation is “the lunatics are running the show,” which emphasizes the idea that those in power may not be acting rationally or logically.

This idiom can also be used humorously in situations where someone is acting particularly irrational or chaotic. For example, if someone were to make an absurd decision, one might jokingly say “looks like the lunatics have taken over.”

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum”


There are several synonyms that can be used in place of “lunatics have taken over the asylum”. These include:

Synonym Definition
The inmates are running the asylum A situation where those who are supposed to be under control or supervision are actually in charge.
The lunatics are running the show A situation where crazy or irrational people are in control.
The crazies have taken over A situation where insane individuals have gained power or influence.


If we were to look at antonyms for this idiom, they would include phrases such as:

“The sane ones are back in charge” or “Order has been restored.”

Cultural Insights

This idiom is often used when referring to a situation that has gone out of control. It may refer to a company whose management is incompetent, a government that has lost touch with its people, or any other situation where those in charge are not acting rationally. The phrase is believed to have originated in the early 1900s when mental institutions were often referred to as “asylums”.

Today, the idiom is used frequently in popular culture and media. It has been used to describe everything from political situations to sports teams whose management seems out of touch with their players and fans.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum”

  • Write a short story or dialogue where one character uses the idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum” to describe a chaotic situation they are experiencing.
  • Create a list of situations where you could use this idiom, such as when describing politics, work environments, or social gatherings.
  • Practice using synonyms for “lunatic” and “asylum” in place of these words while still conveying the same meaning. For example, instead of saying “lunatics have taken over the asylum,” try saying “crazies have taken over the institution.”
  • Watch movies or TV shows that use this idiom and take note of how it is used in context. Try to identify other idioms that are commonly used alongside this one.
  • Engage in conversation with native English speakers and try using this idiom naturally within your discussion. Ask for feedback on how well you incorporated it into your speech.

By practicing these exercises regularly, you will become more confident in your ability to use the idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum” effectively and appropriately in various situations.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum”

When using idioms, it’s important to be aware of their meanings and usage. The idiom “lunatics have taken over the asylum” is a common expression used in English language, which means that people who are crazy or irrational have taken control of a situation.

Avoiding Literal Interpretation

One common mistake when using this idiom is taking it literally. It’s important to understand that this phrase is figurative and not meant to be taken at face value. Using it in a literal sense can lead to confusion and misinterpretation.

Avoiding Offensive Language

Another mistake is using this idiom in an offensive manner. While idioms are often used for humor or emphasis, it’s important to avoid offending others with insensitive language. This phrase can be seen as derogatory towards individuals with mental illness, so it should be used with caution and sensitivity.

  • Avoid using this idiom in professional settings where offensive language may not be tolerated.
  • If you’re unsure about whether or not your usage of this phrase could offend someone, err on the side of caution and choose another expression instead.
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