Printable Version
Pronunciation: bed-lêm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Uproar, chaos, mayhem, pandemonium. 2. An insane asylum, madhouse. 3. (Capitalized, colloquial) The hospital for the treatment of the mentally ill of St. Mary of Bethlehem, now located in the London borough of Lambeth.

Notes: A crazy person in every sense of the phrase is colloquially referred to as Jack O'Bedlam or Tom O'Bedlam, especially abroad. A patient at St. Mary's is a bedlamite and the adjective bedlamish means "like a Bedlamite" or simply "mad, foolish".

In Play: The literal sense of the word we hear in expressions like so: "All bedlam broke loose when the bomb threat was announced from the loudspeakers despite the plea for calm." If we back away slightly from the literal meaning, we may say things like this: "American politics of the 2020s is in a state of bedlam."

Word History: This word evolved from the colloquial pronunciation of Bethlehem, a shortened form of "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem", a mental institution established in London in 1247 during the reign of Henry III. Mental institutions of that time were usually places of bedlam, more like prisons than hospitals. English picked its word up from Old French Betleem, inherited from Latin Bethlehemum, which Latin borrowed from Greek Bethleem. Greek borrowed the word from the Hebrew phrase 'beth lekhem', which means "House of Bread". (Now a round of e-applause to Wordmaster Albert Skiles of Fayetteville, Arkansas, for bringing us today's common Good Word from an uncommon origin.)

Dr. Goodword,

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