One of my favorite expressions has always been “brain explosion”. When I was in school and the exam results hadn’t come out yet, I used to study the teachers for any early signs that my paper had gone belly-up. One of the worst hints you could get was the teacher giving you a pained look and mumbling, “Oh… Oh dear…” One of the other signs of imminent failure was the teacher chortling to himself and crowing, “My God, there were some real brain explosions in the essay section!” Everyone would shift uncomfortably in their seats and wonder who amongst them had crashed and burned.
Brain explosions seem to be an archaic or regional thing these days. The closest modern American expression is “brain fart”, which refers to doing something stupid during a momentary lapse. A brain explosion is similar, but more violent. It signifies a total and sustained cerebral disgorgement, a vomitous eructation of the brain’s contents, a catastrophic diarrhetic spasm of disastrous proportions.
The phrase, however, is not a new one. It could so easily just have been modern slang. Actually it traces its origins to one American courtroom in 1907.
In 1907 Harry K. Thaw was on trial for murder. Thaw was a playboy who claimed he’d been snubbed repeatedly by one Stanford White, who had him barred from numerous clubs for “behavior unbefitting of a gentleman”. To add to Thaw’s paranoia, it came out that his fiancée had had a one night stand with White. On the 25th of June 1906, Thaw and White attended a musical comedy on the roof of Madison Square Garden. Toward the end of the show, Thaw pulled a gun on White and shot him through the head during the musical number “I Could Love a Million Girls”. He fired off three shots, then cursed and muttered, “You’ll never go out with that woman again.” The manager urged the chorus girls to go on with the show, but the singers and dancers were too shocked. The show was over. Stanford White was thoroughly dead.1
Thaw pled temporary insanity, claiming that he suffered “an abnormal depression amounting almost to monstrosity” caused by epilepsy and a wildly irregular pulse. The defense described the night of the murder as an “explosive manifestation in the brain of the defendant”. You can tell we’re skirting around the phrase, just waiting for someone to say the right words in the right order. The lucky winner was the prosecution, who described the event (in presumably skeptical tones) as a “mental storm of brain explosion or fulmination or detonation in the defendant’s mind”.2 Thaw was found not guilty, but the trial had given birth to a linguistic wonder.
The case fired the public imagination. People love a good murder, and you can’t do better than one during a musical at the heart of New York in which the murderer’s brain apparently exploded. The phrasing was so novel that even the medical profession flipped out with glee at the whole thing. The American Physician ridiculed brain explosions and the psychiatrists who touted them in court:
The District-Attorney, addressing the large pickle-shaped person on the stand:
“Assuming, as you have stated, that the human head is full of fromage de Brie and sulphur matches, and assuming further that the only way to tell when it is ripe is by plunking, the same as a watermelon, I put it to you as one of the pertinent issues in this case, and I demand a truthful answer—why did the old hen cross the road?”
The Witness—She had a brain explosion. All the symptoms show that the mental excitement following upon the production of a large blonde egg with freckles on it so operated upon the mind of the late hen that she crossed the road and was run over by an automobile.
District-Attorney—Move to strike out the word “automobile” as having no bearing upon this case.
The Court—The bearings were on the hen, not on the case. Proceed.
District-Attorney—Now, then, reverting to the subject of the esteemed conk of this accursed defendant—not that he counts a hang, but it’s necessary to drag him in occasionally—I desire to know what would have to enter his skull before he could have a brain explosion?
Witness—I should say a few brains.
District-Attorney—And where would he get them?
Witness (glancing over the court-room)—It would be necessary to send out.
District-Attorney—I presume you couldn’t spare any yourself?
Witness—Certainly not, I’m an alienist3.
District-Attorney (consulting a blank page of the record)—What is your authority for the statement which you made when you first took the stand in this case year before last that the mad king of Persia, Hysteria II, was so much given to brain explosions that he had to stuff the ears with cotton in order to keep his side-whiskers from being blown off?
Witness—The instance is mentioned, as I recall, in the works of the Greek poet Laryngitis, who flourished 23 B. C.—
District-Attorney—I beg your pardon?
Witness—I said 23 B. C., signifying charter member No. 23 in the original Bug Club. Laryngitis was himself an alienist.
District-Attorney—Thank you kindly. Nine months ago, in the earlier and almost intelligible stages of the cross-examination, you also stated that a brain explosion might occur inside of a mussy mansard without creating outward and visible agitation. Suppose such a brain explosion should occur in the dome of my assistant here upon the right, what then would happen?
Witness—His hat would tip up about half an inch. In an extreme explosion, involving all the mayonnaise in his crock, the hair might be slightly disarranged.
District-Attorney—You have likewise cited the case of a patient who conceived that he beheld two large, green eyes bearing down upon him and heard a loud, roaring sound. How did you diagnose it?
Witness—As an hallucination. But at the inquest the Coroner said it must have been a Trolley car.
District-Attorney—What do you think of the Polypus-Smith test for dillpicklephobis?
Witness—I think so.
Counsel for the Defense—No?
The Court—Explain more fully, please, so that nobody can understand.
Witness—As I never before heard of the Polypus-Smith test, I have decided that in order to be absolutely fair I should believe it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and repudiate it on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The Court—Spoken like a true alienist! We will now take a recess while the District-Attorney sharpens his teeth.
The Funny Part: They pay ’em $1.00 a day for doing it.4
It’s not hard to see how such a delicious phrase entered the popular consciousness. People seized on the sensational idea of a brain explosion including, in 1922, a “deadly vampire”:
Pictured by her counsel as a cultured woman of the South who had slain her weakling betrayer while suffering from a momentary brain “explosion,” and denounced by the State as a vampire who had gone “gunning” for the man who had seen through her tactics, Olivia M. P. Stone yesterday heard the final summing up to a jury in the Brooklyn Supreme Court which today will try to determine whether she should go to the electric chair for the murder of former Corporation Counsel Ellis Guy Kinkead of Cincinnati. Miss Stone, who has maintained that Kinkead was her common law husband, fainted for a third time just as court convened.5
Vampire! Fainting! Miss Stone was clearly not beyond a few theatrical touches. Nor was her defense counsel, who attacked Kinkead’s widow as “a woman of the underworld”. The jury bought the defense again and Miss Stone, deadly vampire, walked out of court a free woman.
The phrase “brain explosion” has continued to be popular up to the present day. It seems to have fallen out of favor in America, where it has been replaced by the far less expressive, less emphatic, and less sophisticated “brain fart”. However in Australia and New Zealand the phrase seems alive and well. A simple search of news sources reveals dozens of Antipodean sportsmen who, in the throes of a brain explosion, managed to stuff up the game. In one case even computer company Hewlett-Packard went through a mid-life crumble and took some time to recover from its “brain explosion”. The phrase is living today, and I say it needs to be resuscitated in places where it has fallen out of use. Come on — brain explosion. How can you not?
If readers have any more bizarre or humorous expressions they’d like to know more about, please do write me an email. I love doing this crap.
- “Miss Olivia Stone Acquitted on the Charge of Murder“. The Miami News 7 April 1922: 14. Print.
- “Modern Expert Testimony”. The American Physician 33.12 (1907): 310-311. Print.
- “Paints Miss Stone as Deadly Vampire“. The New York Times 6 April 1922. Print.
- “Thaw Murders Stanford White“. The New York Times 26 June 1906. Print.
- “Thaw Mystifies Even the Experts“. The Philadelphia Record 14 February 1907. 1+. Print.