“This column takes its title from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay’s seminal work on folly, first published in 1841, and subsequently much revised to account for the mechanisation of 19th-century hysteria. Mackay treats of many psychic states, ranging from the innocuously barmy to the downright deranged, but to my mind one of his most interesting sections concerns the way in which a nonce word, or phrase, will grip the masses, until you cannot listen to an exchange between two people without hearing it used. D’you know what I mean?
“In Mackay’s day the London mob were seized by successive manias for catchphrases as various as ‘Quoz’, ‘What a shocking bad hat’ and ‘Has your mother sold her mangle?’. In some instances, he is able to trace the expression back to its origins in a real happening, or a popular ballad, while with others, although unable to explain where it came from, he nonetheless furnishes a wealth of anecdotage. One such is ‘Who are you?’, a line that was so much the rage, it entered the literary canon through the mouth of the caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
To read the rest of Self’s Madness of Crowds column, visit the New Statesman website.