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Why Tom?

Posted by James Briggs on April 22, 2002

In Reply to: Why Tom? posted by R. Berg on April 21, 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?

: : : Tom wasn't the only name used in this way. From the OED's entry for "Tom-fool":
: : : "As quasi-proper name, 'Tom Fool': a man mentally deficient; a half-witted person. Obs."
: : : One of the supporting quotations for this definition: "A foole reall . . . such ffooles wee commonlie expresse by the names of Tom ffoole, Dick ffoole, and Jack ffoole" ("New Serm. of newest fashion," 1640).
: : : No word from the OED on why "Tom" took hold for foolery and left Dick and Jack in the dust.

: : I've had a recall from my school days of more than half a century ago! In King Lear (3.iv) Shakespeare give the name 'Tom' to Edgar, in disguise and apparently living in a hovel as a madman - 'Poor Tom's a-cold'. So we're back to 1500 and something. Was Shakespeare the instigator of 'Tom' as mad or foolish?

: No, he was using the name with a long-established meaning that his audience would have understood. The OED again:
: 1356-7 Durham Acc. Rolls "Pro funeracione Thome Fole" [from 1337 frequently mentioned as 'Thomas fatuus'].
: 1565 Calfhill "I might byd them tell them, as Tom foole did his geese."


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