Eccentricity

andy kaufman by paul hornschemeier

In popular usage, eccentricity [ek-suhn-tris-i-tee] (also called quirkiness or kookiness) refers to unusual or odd behavior on the part of an individual. This behavior would typically be perceived as unusual or unnecessary, without being demonstrably maladaptive. Eccentricity is contrasted with ‘normal’ behavior, the nearly universal means by which individuals in society solve given problems and pursue certain priorities in everyday life. People who consistently display benignly eccentric behavior are labeled as ‘eccentrics.’

Derived from Greek ekkentros, ‘out of the center,’ the word ‘eccentric’ first appeared in English in 1551 as an astronomical term meaning ‘a circle in which the earth, sun, etc. deviates from its center.’ Five years later, in 1556, an adjective form of the word was added. 129 years later, in 1685, the definition evolved from the literal to the figurative, and eccentric began being used to describe unconventional or odd behavior. A noun form of the word – a person who possesses and exhibits these unconventional or odd qualities/behaviors – didn’t appear until 1832.

Eccentricity is often associated with genius, intellectual giftedness, or creativity. The individual’s eccentric behavior is perceived to be the outward expression of their unique intelligence or creative impulse. In this vein, the eccentric’s habits are incomprehensible not because they are illogical or the result of madness, but because they stem from a mind so original that it cannot be conformed to societal norms. English utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill wrote that ‘the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained,’ and mourned a lack of eccentricity as ‘the chief danger of the time.’

Edith Sitwell wrote that eccentricity is ‘often a kind of innocent pride,’ also saying that geniuses and aristocrats are called eccentrics because ‘they are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.’ Eccentricity is also believed to be associated with great wealth. What would be considered to be signs of insanity in a poor person is generally accepted as eccentricity in these people. Of course, people of great wealth can be eccentric without having to worry about its social consequences such as being fired from a job by an intolerant boss.

A person who is simply in a ‘fish out of water’ situation is not, by the strictest definition, an eccentric since, presumably, he or she may be ordinary by the conventions of his or her native environment. Eccentrics may or may not comprehend the standards for normal behavior in their culture. They are simply unconcerned by society’s disapproval of their habits or beliefs. Many of history’s most brilliant minds have displayed unusual behaviors and habits.

Some eccentrics are pejoratively considered ‘cranks,’ rather than geniuses. Eccentric behavior is often considered whimsical or quirky, although it can also be strange and disturbing. Many individuals previously considered to be merely eccentric, such as aviation magnate Howard Hughes, have recently been retrospectively-diagnosed as actually suffering from mental disorders (obsessive–compulsive disorder in Hughes’s case). Probably the best example was Serbian physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla. Another famous eccentric was renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein; his eccentricities included picking up discarded cigarette butts off the street in order to circumvent his doctor’s ban on buying tobacco for his pipe, piloting his sailboat on windless days (‘for the challenge’), and lecturing his 8-year-old nephew on physics (including a 2-hour exposition on the Newtonian properties of soap bubbles).

Other people may have eccentric taste in clothes, or have eccentric hobbies or collections which they pursue with great vigor. They may have a pedantic and precise manner of speaking, intermingled with inventive wordplay. Individuals may manifest eccentricities deliberately, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from societal norms or enhance a sense of inimitable identity; given the overwhelmingly positive stereotypes often associated with eccentricity. Extravagance is a kind of eccentricity, related to abundance and wastefulness.

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