April 23, 2014

Case File #014.04.23: BEDLAM

You may find this a little ironic, but the roots of the noun bedlam wind all the way back to a thirteenth-century priory. Established in London in 1247, the Saint Mary of Bethlehem Friary was initially set up as a monastic community for monks and nuns, but by 1330, it had been converted to a hospital for the poor and had come to be known as the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem. The hospital was taken over by the state in 1375, and by 1405, it was being used, at least in part, as a public insane asylum, one of the first such institutions in England. That's all very interesting, you say, but what does any of it have to do with the word bedlam ? Well, in the colloquial speech of fourteenth-century London, the hospital in question was often referred to as simply Bethlehem. As the years went by, however, this was contracted first to Bethlem and then to Bedlem, and by the time the hospital became an institution for the insane in the early fifteenth century, people were calling it Bedlam. It didn't take too long, of course, for people to associate the hospital's informal moniker with the tumultuous behavior that was often exhibited by the institution's mentally disturbed residents, and by the end of the seventeenth century, bedlam had become a generic term meaning “a place, scene, or state of uproar, confusion, or chaos.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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