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Asylum: What's in a Word?

Asylum is a scary word. That hasn't always been the case, nor should it be now.

Key points

  • The word "asylum" has had many connotations associated with it over the years.
  • Asylum has meant refuge for immigrants and other people who need it.
  • On the other hand, asylum has been associated with images of danger and madness in popular media.

Think about the word asylum. What comes to mind? Probably one of two things: a scary old mental hospital or a political refugee requesting safety. The word itself comes from the Greek words asulon and asulos, which mean, respectively, “refuge” and “that which may not be seized.”

The word asylum was likely first made famous in America by Tom Paine. In his epochal Common Sense, he argued that monarchies are bad for their subjects, and the American colonists should ditch their King and form their own democratic government. Paine grandly imagined a new, better country, one that would usher in the “birthday of a new world.” Unlike brutal old England, the colonies were a beacon of safety, a haven for dissidents and free thinkers. They were “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster…”.

Paine’s arguments resonated. The “common sense” he espoused was, in fact, quite revolutionary—not common at all. This was a world of monarchies, not democracies. His pamphlet went through 25 printings and was read by everyone from George Washington on down. When the U.S. finally became a country, the asylum tradition lived on. We see this ideal in Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 poem, “The New Colossus,” which famously imagines the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles,” welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to American shores.

Asylum held such positive connotations that when medical authorities created new mental hospitals in the 19th century, they named them “asylums.” The old term was “madhouse.” But that evoked the horrors of raving lunatics chained to walls, wallowing in their own filth. Asylum meant shelter and grace. As revered French physician Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol argued, “I would like these [new] establishments to be given a specific name which presents no painful idea to the mind; I would like them to be called asylums.”

America would soon be home to the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, the Eastern Lunatic Asylum of Virginia, and the Worcester State Lunatic Asylum in Massachusetts, among others. Each offered the latest in mental health therapies. Patients received fresh air, healthful activities, simple food, and open spaces. There would be less reliance on strong rooms, straitjackets, and physical coercion. Though more dubious approaches were also used, such as bleeding, blistering, hypnotism, and occasional clitoridectomies to combat female masturbation.

By the dawn of the 20th century, asylums increasingly became overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous. To combat the bad publicity, doctors renamed them hospitals. Once a term referencing poverty and filth, hospitals were now viewed as clean, well-managed, and scientifically run. The asylum summoned foreboding. So doctors cast it into oblivion.

And yet, not unlike the zombie, “asylum” lived on. Not in medicine but in pop culture. Novels, memoirs, and movies about mental hospitals used the word as a referent for a scary place.

Meanwhile, the politico-legal use of the term went through its ebbs and flows. Even as Lazarus touted America’s graciousness, xenophobic nationalists railed against outsiders “storming” America and polluting its “Anglo-Saxon” makeup. Racist laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 slammed the door on asylum-seekers. Finally, in 1980, the Refugee Act created, for the first time, a statutory process for granting asylum. Some three million refugees arrived and found safety in the years ahead.

That is, until the election of Donald Trump. Trump arrived on a tide of discontent. He explained that America was being “overrun” by dangerous outsiders, mainly by way of our Southern border. He tweeted, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order.” Trump then proceeded to dismantle the Refugee Act. For him, “asylum” was a bad word.

So asylum is not such a simple word. It is positive by definition. But, as our history shows, it can be seen very negatively. It is up to us, then, to educate ourselves and to determine what we want it to mean. I suggest we listen to Tom Paine.


Paine, T. Common Sense (1997). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Schoenholtz, Ramji-Nogales, and Schrag (2021). The End of Asylum. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.