Saturday, 17 August 2013

‘Bedlam’, 'Tom foolery’ and a Picture of Mental Illness in British History

In effect, what the public were paying to see in the hospital
One of my favourite word origins that I’ve come across is the link between ‘bedlam’ and ‘Tom foolery’. They both originate from a dark tale in British history.

The story of ‘bedlam’ and ‘Tom foolery’ both come from the St Mary of Bethlehem hospital located in Bishop’s Gate, London in the sixteenth century. The hospital is believed to be the first to deal with mental illness in Europe, and I use the term ‘deal’ loosely. In those days, as one may expect, hygiene and living conditions were terrible. Patients slept on straw and the quality of care was substantially lacking. Scandalously, the public were allowed to see the patients in the hospital if they paid a shilling. In effect, what the public were doing by paying money was to see the madness.

Back then, ‘Bethlehem’ was pronounced ‘bedlam’. Today, ‘bedlam’ means chaos, confusion and disorder, which is exactly what the public were seeing when they watched the behaviour of the patients housed inside the hospital.
‘Tom foolery’ originates from the nickname given to a patient housed at the hospital: an inmate was labelled ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ which passed into English meaning anyone who is mentally deficient.

As so often is the case in English, ‘Tom foolery’ today has lost its stinging connotations relating to the hospital conditions at St Mary’s and the inmates themselves. It is now used far more affectionately.
So two pieces of English that go right back to the terrible conditions at St Mary’s hospital in London. It’s a sad story but one that’s very insightful to a lexicon.

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