You’re a bigger one.
Dear Word Detective: This being silly season (come to think of it, haven’t the entire last ten years been silly season?), there has been an awful lot of media attention on wingnuts. Can you tell us anything about when the term “wingnut” started to refer to … well … what else could I call them? … wingnuts? — Dawn.
This is an interesting question. Unfortunately, what makes it particularly interesting are some areas of uncertainty, but we’ll do our best to make it all make sense. Just keep in mind that this is a topic in which “making sense” itself does not play a large role.
“Wingnut” is a pejorative term commonly used by political bloggers of a left bent to describe fervid exponents of right-wing (often extreme right-wing) political opinions and causes. (I’m going to avoid the use of terms such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “libertarian” and “progressive” here because I have no interest in debating political theology at the moment. “Left” and right” will have to do.) This current sense of “wingnut” dates back to the late 1990s, but it only really became popular with the rise of political blogging in the early years of the 21st century.
In a literal sense, “wingnut,” which first appeared as “wing nut” around 1900, means a kind of mechanical “nut” (paired with a bolt) having “wings,” or flat projections, allowing it to be easily tightened using only one’s fingers. Handy things, those wing nuts. The existence of that sense of “wingnut” contributed to, but is not directly connected to, the modern political “wingnut,” which is simply a shortened form of “right-wing nut,” a phrase dating to the early 1960s (“‘You one of these right-wing nut outfits?’ inquired the diplomatic Metzger,” The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 1966). “Nut” here is, of course a slang term meaning “crazy person,” derived from the very old use of “nut” to mean “head.”
Interestingly, however, “wingnut” had a low-key presence in the culture back in the 1980s as a simple, non-political synonym for “eccentric person” or “crackpot,” a use clearly not derived from a shortening of “right-wing nut.” It seems to have been especially popular in Canada, applied to everything from bad drivers (“Our most vociferous broadside against wingnut drivers,” Toronto Star, 1987) to the late Michael Jackson (“Moonwalk is less an autobiography than a printed response. [Michael Jackson] feels we have got him wrong. That we have misunderstood his idiosyncrasies and unfairly branded him a celebrity wingnut,” The Gazette, Montreal, 1988). My guess is that this use of “wingnut” is a simple elaboration of “nut” in the “crackpot” sense, perhaps invoking the “wings” of a mechanical wingnut to suggest flights of fantasy or the like. This non-political “wingnut” surely contributed to the current political “nutcase” use of the word.
“Wingnut” was also used to mean a fan of the NBC show The West Wing (1999-2007) about a fictional Democratic president and his administration.
Speaking of wings, the equivalent epithet commonly applied by right-wing bloggers and commentators to “wingnuts” of the left is “moonbat,” introduced (according to the late William Safire, a masterful chronicler of such things) in 1999 by Perry de Haviland, proprietor of the “Samizdata” blog. De Haviland has said that when he coined the term (as “barking moonbat”) he meant it to apply to crazies of both the Right and Left, but today it is deployed exclusively by the Right at the Left. Safire theorized that the existing epithet “Loony Left” (“loony” being rooted in “luna,” moon) may have bolstered the appeal of “moonbat” to the Right. The source of “moonbat” is uncertain, but the term does occur in two stories from the 1940s by science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein.