Bedlam

In this entry we will see the history of the word “Bedlam” which means “noisy chaos and wild uproar” and comes from the word “Bethlehem”

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February 12 was Charles Darwin’s birthday. He set sails in 1837 aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and went on to tell us how life has evolved in our fair planet.

Languages are living organisms as well and have their own evolutionary tales. Now, there is no need to go all the way back to the Indo-European roots of all western tongues for an extensive account of the apparition of English. Instead, it would be more amusing to find out how certain expressions have changed over time (as in Spanish many words that have a silent “h” before a vowel used to have an “f”, i.e. “Hermosa” –beautiful- used to be “Fermosa”) and where they came from. This is why on this entry we will take a look at the word “Bedlam”.

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“Bedlam” is a noun –a noun is a word that refers to a person, a place, a thing, a substance or a quality– that we use to talk about a noisy lack of order or a chaotic situation. E.G.: “When the law was passed, a complete bedlam broke out among the opposing congressmen”.

The word “Bedlam” evolved from “Bethlehem”, the alleged place of birth of Jesus Christ. How did this word that is usually associated with hope and salvation come to represent a situation of wild uproar? In 1402, the hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem, located in London, began to be used as an insane asylum. Therapy and treatment were not in the cards for such patients, towards whom containment was considered the only appropriate policy. For this reason, inside the hospital there was always shrieking, wailing and screaming in such a notorious way that “Bethlehem” and its colloquial hasty pronunciation “Bedlam” became synonyms for chaos and noise.

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In William Shakespeare’s 1605 play “King Lear”, Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester, is forced to disguise himself as a wandering lunatic and beggar called “Tom o’Bedlam”.

First of all, in England, “Tom” is the epitome of the common name. Tom is everyone and no one. When one wishes to talk about an indefinite person who doesn’t amount to much, one mentions “Tom, Dick and Harry” or “Tom, Dick and Harriet” in order to be gender-fair.If the university doesn’t establish a rigorous admission test for the Master Degree in Communication, we’ll have any Tom, Dick and Harriet passing off as professional journalists”.  This usage is not unlike that for John Doe, Jane Doe and Joe Schmoe in United States.

Besides, “Tom” carries the unjust prejudice of being associated with men of less than average intelligence (much like “George” in Romania), so a person can be labeled as a “Tom fool” and his actions as “tomfoolery”. In this order of ideas, “Tom o‘Bedlam” was a madman who wasn’t violent enough to be institutionalized or who had become so harmless that he could be discharged from the asylum.

Thus we end this entry which was not so much of a lesson as it was a bit of indulgence in one of the greatest pleasures of language learning: etymology, the study of the origin of words. If there is one that you know and would like to share with all the readers, please comment. It would be great to learn more from everyone.

Afterthought: the anagram for “Bedlam” is “Med lab” (Medical laboratory). Perhaps this explains recent breakthroughs in psychiatric medicine.

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