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In popular usage, eccentricity (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".
From Medieval Latin eccentricus, derived from Greek ekkentros, "out of the center", from ek-, ex- "out of" + kentron, "center". Eccentric first appeared in English essays as a neologism 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 used. 129 years later, in 1685, the definition evolved from the literal to the figurative, and eccentric is noted to have begun 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 – appeared by 1832.
Depictions of eccentricity
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 (b 1806) wrote that "the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained", and mourned a lack of eccentricity as "the chief danger of the time". Edith Sitwell (b 1887) 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.
Comparison to considerations of normality
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 some 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).
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.
Many individuals may even manifest eccentricities consciously and deliberately, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from societal norms or enhance a sense of inimitable identity; given the overwhelmingly positive stereotypes (at least in pop culture and especially with fictional characters) often associated with eccentricity, detailed above, certain individuals seek to be associated with this sort of character type. However, this is not always successful as eccentric individuals are not necessarily charismatic, and the individual in question may simply be dismissed by others as just seeking attention.
Extravagance is a kind of eccentricity, related to abundance and wastefulness; refer to description in hyperbole.
Psychologist Dr. David Weeks mentions people with a mental illness "suffer" from their behavior while eccentrics are quite happy. He even states eccentrics are less prone to mental illness than everyone else.
According to studies, there are eighteen distinctive characteristics that differentiate a healthy eccentric person from a regular person or someone who has a mental illness (although some may not always apply). The first five are in most people regarded as eccentric:
- Nonconforming attitude
- Intense curiosity
- Happy obsession with a hobby or hobbies
- Knew very early in their childhood that they were different from others
- Highly intelligent
- Opinionated and outspoken
- Unusual living or eating habits
- Sometimes not interested in the opinions or company of others
- Strong moral obligations (against infidelity, strong family values, ultrareligious)
- Mischievous sense of humor
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- Stares, Justin (2005-11-06). "Einstein, eccentric genius, smoked butts picked up off street". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2006-09-27.
- "Mill, John Stuart quote – Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character". Quotationsbook.com. 2007-07-30. Retrieved 2010-03-12.
- "Famous John Stuart Mill Quotes". Philosophy Paradise. Retrieved 2010-03-12.
- "Quote by Edith Sitwell: Eccentricity is not, as some would believe...". Goodreads. Retrieved 2010-04-19.
- Battaglia, Debbora (1995-02-03). "On Eccentricity". Rhetorics of self-making. University of California Press. pp. 48–49. ISBN 978-0-520-08799-6. Retrieved 10 November 2010.
- Weeks, David and James, Jamie (1995) Eccentrics: A study of Sanity and Strangeness, Villiard, ISBN 0-394-56565-7
- "Interview with David Weeks – "Nutrition Health Review", Winter, 1996". Findarticles.com. 2009-06-02. Retrieved 2010-03-12.