“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny…”

Image from A Christmas Story. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1983.

There are no right answers here, but my choice for the greatest Christmas movie of all-time is A Christmas Story. You can’t convince me otherwise. I love it so much that I bought a leg lamp for our front window. Every year, even before we’ve purchased a tree, the leg lamp makes its appearance—and we have copious amounts of glue, should anything happen.

Beyond nostalgia and tradition, the subtle one-liners are the movie’s greatest strength. Some of my favorites, in no particular order:1

  • “In our world, you were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims.”
  • “Adults loved to say things like that, but kids knew better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.”
  • “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity, that as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
  • “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.”
  • “Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.”
  • “He looks like a deranged Easter bunny.”

I can’t remember the first time I saw A Christmas Story, but after the fourth or fifth time watching it, the word “deranged” became part of my vocabulary. I didn’t look up the definition, but from context clues I knew it meant “wacky,” “silly,” “insane,” or something to that effect. So, when I started work on a project for the Society of the Cincinnati—the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army who served together in the American Revolution—I was surprised to see the word “deranged” used as a description of one’s military service.

For example, when editing a biography of one of the officers, I came across Capt. Stephen Hall (1739-1783), who “was a Qualified Propositus of the Connecticut Society who was Deranged”. 2 At the time I thought, “geez, that can’t mean what I think it does,” so I went on a quest to discover its original meaning.

I started with the Society of the Cincinnati’s website3 and reviewed its mission. Here is an excerpt from the lengthy mission statement:

“All the officers of the American Army – as well as those who have resigned with honor, after three years service in the capacity of Officers, or who have been deranged by the resolutions of Congress on the several reforms of the Army, as those who shall have continued to the end of the war – have the right to become parties to this Institution. Provided that they subscribe one months pay and sign their names to the general rules in their respective State Societies, – those who are present with the Army immediately, and others within six months after the Army shall be disbanded, extraordinary cases excepted. The rank, time of service, resolution of Congress by which any have been deranged, and place of residence must be added to each name. And as a testimony of affection to the memory and the offspring of such Officers as have died in the service, their eldest male branches shall have the same right of becoming members, as the Children of the actual members of the Society.”

From context clues, it seems like the word meant “disbanded” or something similar. I continued to search through printed material without success, so finally I went to ask my colleague Chris Child, who knows everything about everything.

Chris said, “to qualify for [membership with] Cincinnati, the officer needed to have first obtained the rank of officer (ensign or above, sergeant and lower does not count), and have served for three years in continental service, died in service, served to the end of war, or their continental unit was rendered supernumerary (deranged)—i.e., it was dissolved and there was nowhere else for the officer to serve in continental units.”4

Merriam Webster defines supernumerary (deranged) as follows:5

  1. a. exceeding the usual, stated, or prescribed number; b. not enumerated among the regular components of a group and especially of a military organization
  2. exceeding what is necessary, required, or desired
  3. more numerous

Well, that was unexpected! Who knew!?

This has happened multiple times during my career as a genealogist—the definition, meaning, or connotation of a word has evolved over time, and thrown me for a loop while I’ve been researching. Some words are just out-of-fashion like “cordwainer” or “relict,” but others have a completely different meaning, like “consumption.” Do you have any words that have thrown you for a loop? What’s your best resource for determining the correct definition? Mine is A to Zax by Barbara Jean Evans. (And Chris Child, of course…)



1 A Christmas Story. Directed by Bob Clark, performances by Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillion, and Darren McGavin, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1983.

2 Research files and Propositus list of The Society Of the Cincinnati in The State of Connecticut.

3 https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/institution-the-society-of-the-cincinnati/

4 Email from Chris Child, November 23, 2022.

5 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/supernumerary

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

14 thoughts on ““He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny…”

  1. A friend in the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati added “some officers were deranged because Congress simply didn’t have the funds to pay them. In my derangement research, some officers weren’t deranged on the New Year when the Continental Army was reorganized.”

    1. Your “ Congress didn’t have the funds to pay them” was very widespread, no doubt. My mother liked using the word deranged, thus my first thought was out of one’s mind. Redundant, is a word I first heard traveling to U.K., and Commonwealth, countries, how could redoing something twice mean one was out of work. Maybe Stephen Hall is my ancestor, a Hall of Marshfield. My go to on is Siri, a good place to start….clue options.

  2. What throws a lot of folk is use of terms like brother, sister, cousin, in laws, etc. They were much more fluid in the past than today. It really complicates a tree if you assume you know the relationship.

  3. Ugh! I was just thinking yesterday about something I wrote for Vita Brevis a few years ago where misunderstanding a word led to a false conclusion. “Poll tax” retains its original meaning in England, which is a tax on heads (as opposed to one on property or income or spending). I was only familiar with its association with elections, and thereby attributed enfranchisement during the American Revolution to people who I suspected did not qualify to vote.

    1. Jeff, Yes we have come to learn about Chris Child, but it’s so much fun to at least ‘say’ we trust him. That way we can hear more.

  4. “Housekeeper” threw me as an occupation in the U.S. census. Until I learned better, I assumed it meant paid employment in someone else’s home, as opposed to keeping house for one’s own family.

    1. I recently got the 1985 death certificate of my great grand aunt. Her marital status was listed as “never married” and her occupation as “housewife!”

  5. The Oxford Historical Thesaurus indicates that the use of the French verb “deranger” (to disranke, disarray, disorder) was first used in English in 1776 by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. Webster, in 1828, gives an alternative definition as “To remove from place or office, as the personal staff of a principal military officer” which agrees with Chris’ definition. If Congress eliminated a commander’s position by consolidating units under a single commander, the staff of the eliminated commander would be deranged, i.e. they became surplus (supernumerary) and lost their position in the “normal” order of the military. It is a very interesting post. Always fun to see how the meaning or tone of words changes over time.

  6. Well, Capt. Stephen Hall was my great great great great great grandfather, & I can attest to the fact that all his descendants were/are deranged, to one degree or another. His Cincinnati certificate went to his son, Brig. General Amos Hall of
    Bloomfield, NY, in the right of his father, & a cousin sold it out of the family for $200 several years ago. Aargh, as the saying goes. Fortunately there are copies.

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