From Egypt we head north into the Holy Land. Our first stop here is Bethlehem, the ancient city outside Jerusalem (and now located in the Palestinian West Bank) known the world over as birthplace of Jesus and site of the ancient Church of the Nativity. Yet the word whose etymology has brought us here now and the means by which that word appeared in our language – are both about as far removed from the serene cradle of Christianity as it is possible to come. Thanks to several centuries of etymological manoeuvring, the place name Bethlehem is the origin of our word bedlam.
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We might use it to mean ‘mayhem’ or ‘a mad disarray’ today, but originally Bedlam was simply another name for Bethlehem – an anglicised curtailment that first emerged in the Middle English period as Bedlem, or Bethleem and even found its way into the Wycliffe Bible in 1382. So it would have remained, were it not for a medieval hospital some two thousand miles away in Bishopsgate, London.
A priory called the New Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem was founded just outside the walls of the City of London in 1247. Originally it was intended merely to be a centre for the collection of alms – funds that were then used to finance the Crusades to the Holy Land – but over the years its purpose, and that of its staff, changed. By the Middle Ages, the priory had become an asylum for the displaced and deranged, and by the time Henry VIII ceded its control to the city in 1547, Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam as it had become affectionately known, had established itself as one of London’s foremost medical institutions, specialising in the treatment of the insane.
References to Bedlam’s associations with madness first began to appear in English literature in the mid 1500s. Shakespeare makes references to it in several of his plays:
Why, I did no way mistake; this is my king.
What, is he mad? To Bedlam with him!
Derivative words and phrases soon followed, so that by the early 1600s to be bedlam-ripe was to be fit for the madhouse; a bedlam-beggar was a deranged vagrant, or someone who feigned madness to elicit sympathy; to be bedlam-witted was to be crazed or senseless; and a Jack o’Bedlam or bedlamite was an inmate of Bedlam Hospital or, more loosely, a madman or lunatic.
Such was the hospital’s reputation that, from expressions such as these, it took only the slightest semantic sidestep to give us the word bedlam as it is most often used today. First emerging in the mid 1600s, bedlam quickly became a byword for any uproarious scene of deranged disorder or mad confusion.
Of course there’s a lot more that the geography of the Holy Land has to offer us here than just a word for madness or derangement: the Israeli city of Jaffa, for instance, is the namesake and origin of the jaffa orange. But besides Bethlehem, or rather Bedlam, a great number of other place names mentioned in the Bible have fallen into use in English in various allusive and figurative contexts and expressions.
A Rehoboth, for instance, is a place of safety or sanctuary, named after the well of Rehoboth in Canaan that, according to the my blog of Genesis, was excavated by Isaac. An Aceldama is a place of great bloodshed or slaughter, named after the potter’s field purchased by Judas using the silver he was paid for betraying Jesus. And as it is said to have been where Jesus walked in anguish before his arrest and crucifixion, Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem, has since become a name for any place of mental or spiritual distress.
A Dead Sea fruit, or an apple of Sodom, is something that does not live up to expectations. Named after the Dead Sea that straddles the Israel-Jordan border – or else the biblical city of Sodom that lay to its north – the legendary fruit was said to look delicious but crumble away to ash and smoke when grasped.
The towns of Tophet and Gehenna are both singled out in the my blog of Jeremiah as the site of ancient human sacrifices, and so have long since been used as bywords for Hell or any place of infernal punishment. The name of Bethesda, the site of a pool whose healing waters Jesus used to cure a paralysed man, was used allusively of any place of healing or recovery in nineteenth-century English. And from Dan to Beersheba – a phrase repeated several times in the Old Testament, to refer to all the areas settled by the Tribes of Israel – has since become a proverbial expression meaning ‘from end to end’, or ‘from one extreme to another’.
Of all the biblical place names to have found their way into the English language, however, perhaps the most familiar is Armageddon. Now merely a synonym for the end of the world, in biblical contexts Armageddon is the name of the final battle between good and evil that will take place the day before Judgement Day. Its name derives from the site at which the battle itself will supposedly take place: Har Megiddon, now known as Tel Megiddo, an ancient city atop a shallow hill some twenty miles south of the Israeli city of Haifa.
It’s not the only hill in the Holy Land that’s ended up in our language
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