It appears that the radical fringe in American politics has self-differentiated into wingnuts and moonbats. That is, these are the epithets being used to describe them, usually by them, along ideological lines.
In case you don’t know, wingnuts are conservative and moobats are liberal, but each is crazy, if the other is to be believed. Wingnuts are nuts, obviously, as well as politically aligned to the right-wing. The term echoes dingbat, which brings us on to moonbat. Moonbats are also engaged in silliness (like dingbats), but etymologically they’re lunatics (of the loony left), and batshit crazy to boot. Nice how bat picks up the moon/loon/lun- theme and turns it in a new direction.
Merriam Webster online has wing nut as slang for “a mentally deranged person … one who advocates extreme measures or changes” but no usage history, and the OED entry (s.v. wing) has none of these connotations. So did wingnut (or wing nut, or wing-nut) already mean wacko before it was applied to the radical right, as the MW definition implies, or has it always been mainly associated with that particularly political kind of wackiness?
Hard to tell. One hypothesis could be that “right wing nut” was already a fixed idiom when it was shortened to “wing nut,” or at least that “nut” was more closely associated with the radical right than with the radical left. That’s the assumption MYL made in 2008 when he discussed the term. Lexis-Nexis has 413 instances of “right wing nut”, going back to a quote in a 1981 NYT article, which strongly implies that the phrase already had some currency then: ‘It’s always nice to back among fellow right-wing nuts,” [22/08/81 s.1 p.7]. But Lexis has 514 hits for “left wing nut”, going back to 1980: ‘The Democratic Party needs Tom Metzger. They’ve been appealing to left-wing nuts’ [AP 5/11/80].
Google Books tells quite a different story, with rights far outnumbering lefts in -nut collocation:
So the two sources are clearly pointing in different directions. What to make of it? Until we get a decent account of Google Books generic distribution over time, it will be very hard to draw reliable conclusions, I think.
As MYL says, “wingnut might in principle also have been derived by ellipsis of “left-“, but I’ve never seen either form used that way.” Neither have I – and while this doesn’t preclude the derivation from “right-wing nut”, it also keeps open the possibility that the terms is in fact just an restriction of “crazy extremist” wingnut, à la MW.com definition, to a class of crazy extremists.
In fact, as far as I can tell, though wingnut pops up in a metaphorical sense well after “left/right-wing nut” is established, it doesn’t start out closely associated with this kind of political slander, on either side. One early user is Greg Quill, who uses it twice in the Toronto Star in 1990-91 (and again later). The first time, it’s part of an active (if somewhat far fetched) metaphor. By the time it turns up to describe Saddam Hussein several months later, it seems to have been lexicalized into an noun meaning “extremist insane person”:
Things start out normally enough, then, gradually, inevitably go awry, until sometime in the wee hours of the following morning, you’re lost and alone and far from home, a disconnected wingnut in an otherwise orderly cosmos. [Greg Quill, Toronto Star, 25/4/90]
This much is no surprise to those among us who have bought the U.S. administration’s simplistic notion of Saddam as the wingnut of the Near East.” [Greg Quill, Toronto Star, 26/2/91]
Star readers would have been somewhat used to the term in the fixed sense of a “crazy”, having read it a few years earlier:
Our most vociferous broadside against wingnut drivers comes from our first $50 winner, Bill Swift of Weston. He describes several types we’ve all cursed, including those “HOLD-ON-TO-THE- LEFT-LANE-AT-ANY-COST” drivers. [George Gamester, Toronto Star, 9/1/87]
One LL commenter has other similar politically neutral uses in Canadian publication of the early 90s, and Ben Zimmer follows up with a series of usages describing the Canadian right-wing of the era, including again the Toronto Star:
Manning is not a wing-nut from Alberta; he embraces moderation, eschews racism. He is a sophisticated politician, clever with words. [8/8/91]
So maybe it is originally a Torontoism, or a Starism. Anyhow, by the time William Safire wrote about wingnut and moonbat in the American context in 2006 [NYT, 3/4/06], several sources, mainly in the early blogosphere, were claiming that wingnut was a put-down properly reserved for the right, and moonbat for the left.
Safire wanted to know where moonbat came from, and came up with a series of sources, the most likely of which was a “libertarian blog” called samizdata.net, run by a guy called Perry de Havilland, who claimed (to Safire) that he invented the word as a general term of abuse for political lunacy of any denomination. The Safire piece lists a bunch of earlier coinings of the same word, which seem to me anyway to be independent. The Japanese clothing company of that name, active in the 80s and 90s, also seems unrelated [excepting a strange convergence in the opus of Howie Carr].
The Wiki page on moonbat lists some early uses which support the idea that the term was originally “ecumenical,” as de Havilland insists in the Safire piece. But very soon the term starts sticking to lefties in the flamewars of the early millennium, as newspapers are happy to report:
On the Internet, they are calling Faith Fippinger a “treasonous hippie” and a “peacenik bitch.” A “no-good dictator-supporting, mass-murder abetting loser.” A “barking moonbat.” [St Petersburg Times, 31/8/03]
Seasoned observers who cover the War on Terror in the “blogosphere” (the increasingly influential world of Internet weblogs) have a useful term for the American Left’s protesters against progress: moonbats. Perry de Havilland of the blog Samizdata (samizdata.net) defined a moonbat as “someone on the extreme edge of whatever their -ism happens to be.” Surveying this bizarre array of grim-faced parade organizers on the extreme edge of anti-Americanism, it’s clear: The barking Left has been left behind. And it’s driving them batty. [Malkin, NYT, 15/3/05]
The Wiki also notes that the American conservative columnist and talk radio host Howie Carr once mentioned the Japanese company in an early article, and later became a happy hurler of moonbats at his political enemies.
It continues with this little anecdote: “In 2008, Carr wrote about the number of “Moonbats” inhabiting the town of Arlington, Massachusetts. In response, a group of Arlington residents founded the Menotomy Moonbats to raise money for their local public schools: Menotomy was the historical name for Arlington during the American Revolutionary War.” Their website states they are “a group of citizens formed to represent the positive ideals embodied in the term Moonbat.”
So in this case moonbat is, among other things, a sort of metonomy for Menotomy. Or at least for Menotomians.
What is wingnut a metonomy for? Easy: Wichitans.