Many now common English words evolve from proper nouns. Gerrymandering—the practice of creating electoral districts that favor a particular political party takes its name from the Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, who approved such a move in 1812. Californication found its way into the lexicon in the 1970s. It refers to the unchecked, haphazard development that was occurring in southern California at the time, but now can describe any sprawling, unplanned metropolis. Technology contributes its share of neologisms: googling, meme, and photoshop, to name a few. And from the sports world—Tebowing—referring to quarterback Tim Tebow’s prayer stance following a touchdown.
Perhaps one of the oldest words that has made its way into the language in this way is bedlam. We use the adjective to refer to a “place, scene, or state of uproar and confusion.” Merriam-Webster also notes bedlam’s obsolete meaning—lunatic or madman. Therein is the clue to the word’s origin.
The Bethlem Royal Hospital in London was founded in 1247 to care for the homeless. Over time its focus became the mentally unstable, making it one of the oldest mental health facilities in the world. In the vernacular of the day the patients were often referred as madmen. Bedlam evolved from Bethlem (note two syllables instead of three). Former patients were called bedlamites, who were then licensed to beg on the public roads. At that time, most medical treatment was ineffective. Treatment often consisted of restraining patients with chains and manacles. Eventually, bedlam came to mean any out-of-control situation.
Today, the original hospital houses portions of the Imperial War Museum, while Bethlem Royal Hospital continues to serve the mentally ill. Thankfully, we’ve grown in our understanding of mental illness and no longer use that word to describe those who suffer with this debilitating disease.