The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
November 28, 2023

"The inmates are running the asylum" is used to describe situations where the wrong people are in control or making decisions, like when the least capable individuals are in charge.

In short:

"The inmates are running the asylum" suggests that those who should be under supervision are the ones in control.

What Does "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" Mean?

This idiom is a colorful way to say that the people who are least qualified or are supposed to be under supervision are the ones making the decisions. Picture a literal asylum where the patients have taken over – chaos would ensue!

  • It often hints at a backward or chaotic situation.
  • The phrase can be used in various contexts, not just literal asylums.
  • It implies a lack of proper leadership or oversight.
  • It might be insensitive or offensive in some situations.

Where Does "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" Come From?

The idiom is a variant of the phrase "the lunatics have taken over the asylum." This variant emerged from a specific historical context in the early 20th century related to the film industry. In 1919, four of the most influential figures in Hollywood—Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith—decided to establish their own film distribution company, United Artists. Richard Rowland, a film producer, reportedly remarked, "The lunatics have taken over the asylum," in response to the founding of United Artists.

Historical example

"Second, please do it soon, because within the EPA, 'the inmates are running the asylum' and the Dioxin from Champion International in our river is running unabated."

This excerpt from a hearing on July 13, 1988, regarding Dioxin Pollution in the Pigeon River, North Carolina, and Tennessee demonstrates the chaos from poor management.

10 Examples of "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" in Sentences

This idiom can be used in a range of scenarios. Here are some examples:

  • With the inmates running the asylum, it's no surprise the company's finances went in the red.
  • Ever since the inmates ran the asylum, every assurance given to us turned out to be an empty promise.
  • If the boss finds out the inmates are running the asylum, several heads might get axed.
  • Tom believes that letting the inmates run the asylum will lead to chaos in the organization.
  • The board meeting went off the rails; it was as if the inmates had taken over the asylum.
  • Rest assured, I won't let the inmates run the asylum. Not on my watch.
  • "You can't just let students decide on the curriculum. That would be like letting the inmates run the asylum!" the principal exclaimed.
  • Once the inmates began running the asylum, they decided to buy everything on credit, disregarding the institution's financial health.
  • When the substitute teacher lost control of the class, it was clear that the inmates were running the asylum.
  • The inmates are running the asylum. No wonder the company is always running short of cash.

Examples of "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" in Pop Culture

  • In the book "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity" by Alan Cooper, the author discusses how tech designers and engineers often create products that aren't user-friendly.
  • The TV series "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" has been mentioned in conjunction with the idiom, given the story's setting in a mental institution and its exploration of power dynamics.
  • The song "Lunatics" by Fun Boy Three has the line "The lunatics have taken over the asylum," an alternate form of the idiom.

Synonyms: Other/Different Ways to Say "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum"

  • The blind leading the blind.
  • Like a ship without a captain.
  • Chaos reigns supreme.

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum"

  • What does "the inmates are running the asylum" mean?

This idiom means that the least qualified or those supposed to be under supervision are the ones in control or making decisions.

  • Where did the phrase originate?

While its exact origin is unclear, it's rooted in the imagery of patients taking over a mental institution.

  • Is the phrase used in popular culture?

Yes, it's been referenced in books, movies, and TV shows, especially when discussing situations where leadership is lacking or misguided.

  • Is it appropriate to use this idiom in any situation?

It's best to use it carefully as it might be deemed insensitive or offensive in some situations.

  • Are there other idioms that convey a similar meaning?

Yes, phrases like "the blind leading the blind" and "like a ship without a captain" have similar connotations.

  • Has the phrase been used in song lyrics?

While not common, some songwriters may use it to evoke a sense of chaos or misdirection.

  • Can the idiom be used in a positive context?

Typically, the idiom has a negative connotation, but creative writers might use it in a more neutral or humorous context.

  • Is the phrase globally recognized?

While many English-speaking countries might recognize it, its meaning might not be immediately clear to non-native speakers.

  • Has the phrase's usage decreased over time?

Like many idioms, its popularity can wax and wane, but it remains a part of the English language.

  • Are there any famous quotes associated with this idiom?

There aren't many famous quotes directly using the idiom, but related sentiments have been expressed in literature and speeches.

Final Thoughts About "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum"

The idiom "the inmates are running the asylum" is a vivid way to express a scenario where those least qualified are in charge.

  • It emphasizes chaos, mismanagement, or lack of proper oversight.
  • While colorful, it's essential to use it sensitively, given its origins and imagery.
  • Despite its age, it remains relevant, especially when discussing leadership or the lack thereof.

As with all languages, it's essential to understand the meaning and context of idioms before using them, ensuring effective and respectful communication.

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