Tom o' Bedlam

Posted by James Briggs on April 20, 2002

In Reply to: Tom o' Bedlam posted by ESC on April 20, 2002

: : : : : It is also the Cockney rhyming slang for jewellery. Like most rhyming slang it then gets shortened to Tom

: : : : One of those opening statement posts, rather than a question. A word of caution though, for those who might attempt a little Dick Van Dyck if in London. Tomfoolery does indeed mean jewellery, and is often shortened to tom, as in "that's a nice bit of old tom she's got round her neck". However, also shortened to tom is the far less pleasant piece of Cockney rhyming slang, a "tom tit", meaning a bowel movement, except a tad more pithily expressed (excuse the unfortunate phrase). So the moral is, be cautious when in the East End of London.

: : : TOMFOOL - "A clumsy, witless fool, fond of stupid practical jokes. Hence 'tomfoolery.'" From Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).

: : I have never found an origin for the use of 'Tom' in this context, unlike 'Jack' - 'jack of all trades, jack frost, jack tar' etc. This comes from the old French tradition of the upper classes naming every peasant 'Jacques'. This then, centuries ago, spread to Britain or, more particularly, England

: tomfoolery -- "Nowadays simply means 'nonsense, silly behavior.' But back in medieval times it was considered great sport to watch the antics of insane people in asylums like Bedlam in London. The nicknames 'Tom o' Bedlam' and 'Tom Fool' were often used for male inmates who were favorites of the audience. Over the centuries the word 'tomfoolery' evolved, eventually acquiring the relatively innocuous meaning it has today." From the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).

Sadly for me, this still begs the question, 'why Tom?' I want an origin with a basis like 'Jack'. Am I asking too much of history?