Maggie swallowed hard, but before she could say anything, they heard a wail from one of the high barred windows. It began low in pitch and volume, then ascended the scale, growing louder and higher until it became a scream so forceful it must have torn its owner’s throat. The children froze. Maggie felt goosebumps sweep up and down her.

Maisie clutched Jem’s arm. "What’s that? Oh, what is’t, Jem?"
Jem shook his head. The sound stopped suddenly, then began again in its low range, to climb higher and higher. It reminded him of cats fighting.

"A lying-in hospital, maybe?" he suggested. "Like the one on Westminster Bridge Road. Sometimes you hear screams coming from it, when the women are having their babies."

Maggie was frowning at the ivy-covered stone wall. Suddenly her face shifted with recognition and disgust. "Oh Lord," she said, taking a step back. "Bedlam."

Tracy Chevalier, Burning Bright

Am I the only inhabitant of the English-speaking world who didn’t know the origin of "bedlam"? After reading the above passage over the holidays, I asked around me if people knew where this word, which, obviously, is used nowadays to describe a scene of mad confusion and uproar, comes from, and the unanimous reply was: "Duh." However, I suspect some readers on the French side might find it interesting. Anyway, I trotted along to the library, notepad in hand, to check what the OED has to say on the subject, and I found the history of the place:

Applied to the hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, in London, founded as a priory in 1247, with the special duty of receiving and entertaining the bishop of St Mary of Bethlehem and the canons etc. of this, the mother church, as often as they might come to England. In 1330 it is mentioned as "an hospital" and in 1402 as a hospital for lunatics; in 1346 it was received under the protection of the city of London, and on the dissolution of monasteries, it was granted to the mayor and citizens, and in 1547 incorporated as a royal foundation for reception of lunatics. Thence the modern sense, of which instances appear early in the 16th c. Originally situated in Bishopsgate, in 1676 rebuilt near London Wall and in 1815 transferred to Lambeth.

I won’t patronize you further by talking about the origin of the word "lunatic", although it is close to my heart, as I used to faint and generally behave strangely at every full moon when I was a child. The French translation of "it’s bedlam" could be "on se croirait dans une maison de fous".
Moon photo by *L*u*z*a*

By | 2009-01-05T09:50:47+00:00 January 5th, 2009|Words|17 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. sylva January 5, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    thanks for the post! I first understood and learnt where the word “bedlam” comes from in works by William Blake who lived in Lambeth…

  2. céline January 5, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    William Blake is one of the characters of “Burning Bright” and I’m planning on reading his biography by Peter Ackroyd. The article you link to is interesting although it is from the despicable Daily Mail. It reminded me of another great book I read recently: The vanishing act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell, whose main character is one of the many, many women who used to be conveniently dumped in asylums by their families if they didn’t conform well enough to what was expected of them.

  3. Bettina January 5, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Funny, I, too, have just finished (and enjoyed) “Burning Bright”. There is nothing like readable novels for learning and remembering things. I also recommend “Falling Angels” by the same author, in case you don’t know it yet.

  4. sylva January 5, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    to Bettina:
    I liked “Falling Angels”, too – not only for the story but also for the evocation of the London cemeteries…
    Ackroyd’s book is a more serious book though, alhtough some critics despised the “novelist” approach – the thing I liked the most-)
    What is “Burning Bright” like?

  5. Helen January 5, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Hi Céline,
    Thanks for another interesting post! When I was back home for Christmas, I came across a little village in North Yorkshire called Bedlam! I was quite amused when I saw the road sign.
    I do love reading your blog. By the way, I hope you’re enjoying life in Yorkshire. I’m from Wakefield (not far from Leeds) so I’m always interested to read your impressions of the ‘grim North’. I’m happily settled in Paris but miss certain aspects of life in Yorkshire.
    Bonne année!

  6. céline January 5, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, “Falling angels” is the only one of her novels I haven’t read and I’m already looking forward to it. My fave of hers is “The Virgin Blue”. Astonishing. I loved “Burning Bright” because of its evocation of London, complete with historical characters such as Blake and Astley; and her characters were, as ever, very well painted.
    Helen, it’s lovely to hear you’re interested in my impressions of Yorkshire. It’s the kind of content I’m not sure is entirely appropriate on a language blog, but I do feel like sharing sometimes. Yorkshire is stunningly beautiful, I have no idea why I feel such a strong connection with it, but I’m never happier than when I’m trampling on a windswept moor. And I’m slowly discovering how dynamic the big Northern cities are, including Leeds – a lovely surprise!

  7. Anon January 6, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    There are plenty more words like bedlam that were generalised from a particular place or institution – borstal, bridewell and clink are other examples.

  8. jean-paul January 6, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Out of curiosity, I wanted to find out if there is a translation of the novel you are reading.
    I did find that it has been translated by Marie-Odile Fortier-Masek. However, I’m puzzled by the French title “L’innocence” as it has nothing to do with “Burning Bright”, two words which – to the English reader – will immediately bring to mind ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright,’ the first line of ‘THE TYGER’, the famous poem by William Blake.
    Did the translator choose “L’innocence” because William Blake also wrote “Songs of Innocence”?
    The choice of an appropriate translation for a title is extremely difficult. I take my hat off to “Ainsi va toute chair” [The Way of All Flesh] or “Les Hauts de Hurlevent” [Wuthering Heights] (so much more powerful, more evocative, more appropriate and more apt than other lesser-known or mediocre titles such as: Les hauteurs tourmentées (simply awful) for instance). But I simply cringed when I came across “Les nus et les morts” [the Naked and the Dead]!
    Maybe other contributors to your blog would like to share their likes and dislikes – or attempts at the translation of the titles of novels, plays, films, etc. ?

  9. language hat January 8, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    What’s wrong with “Les nus et les morts”? I know French well enough to read it easily but not well enough to have a feel for such things. (Incidentally, “The Naked and the Dead” sounds like it should be a quote, but I have no idea what it’s from, if anything. Great title, though.)

  10. jean-paul January 9, 2009 at 7:41 am

    The French for ‘naked/bare’ is indeed the adjective ‘nu’.
    However “Le nu” , “Un nu” (i.e ‘nu’ used as a noun) does NOT mean a “naked/unclothed person”.
    It means ‘a nude figure’/ a naked figure/ a sculpture, painting, etc., of a nude human figure.
    It is used in BEAUX-ARTS
    1. Genre spécialisé dans la représentation du corps humain dans sa nudité totale. Faire une étude de nu
    2. Œuvre représentant un nu. Faire un nu; un nu d’Ingres.:
    3. PHOTO. Nu artistique. Photographie d’art consacrée au nu.
    i.e: (of a photograph, painting, statue, etc.) being or prominently displaying a representation of the nude human figure.
     ART nude
    une photo de nu = a nude photo
    I expect “the naked and the dead’ is a take, with a sinister and certainly not aesthetic/artistic twist, on ” the quick and the dead”
    The phrase comes from KJV II Timothy, 4:1: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;” The King James Version often used “quick” to mean “living.” The New American Standard Bible and the New International Version translate the same verse as “the living and the dead.”

  11. jean-paul January 9, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    I wonder what NAME Céline would have chosen for her blog (Naked Translations) in FRENCH ??
    I’d rule out “Traductions nues” for a start
    Suggestions, anyone??

  12. céline January 9, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    ooooh… “Traductions dans le plus simple appareil”? 😉 Hardly snappy, but that’s all I can come up with at 16:14 on a Friday after a manic week.

  13. language hat January 9, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks, jean-paul. So how would you translate Mailer’s title?

  14. jean-paul January 11, 2009 at 8:23 am

    I would need to reread the novel first – I studied it when I was at college, some forty years ago!
    Anyway, I don’t think my translation would be a carbon copy of the original: The+adj and the+adj. It needn’t be. Example: ‘Sniffing Papa’ by Inderjit Badhwar very aptly translated as ‘La chambre des parfums’.
    The reason  The room that contains the old man’s death bed- the “CHAMBER OF PERFUMES” – is where the family can imbibe, or SNIFF, the past, present, and the future. The nose performs a vital function of memory – the odours and fragrances of blood, kinship, childhood, death, sex the countryside and the wilderness.
    … Pourquoi insister sur la précision de la transcription ou sur la fidélité de la traduction du titre? Le titre fait partie intégrante de l’œuvre. Il est assigné par l’artiste au moment de sa création. Les mots contenus dans le titre donnent son sens à [l’image], et en même temps en constituent les descripteurs. Éliminés, mal interprétés ou modifiés ces descripteurs, les clés d’accès au [document] sont perdues, à moins qu’un inventaire rétrospectif ne les rétablisse…

  15. Bela January 13, 2009 at 3:09 am

    Well, I like Les Nus et les Morts, although you are right, of course, Jean-Paul.
    The original title of the novel I translated last year was The Communist’s Daughter. Mercure de France didn’t think La Fille du communiste would sell so it was renamed Le Docteur rouge, which is wonderfully inspired since it’s about Norman Bethune, a famous surgeon who fought in the Spanish Civil War and the second Sino-Japanese War. The author, the editor and I were asked to suggest suitable titles, but we were all too ‘close’ to the book. In the end, someone who doesn’t work in the editorial department at MdF came up with that brilliant, simple title.

  16. jean-paul January 14, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    I think that “Le Docteur rouge” is indeed an excellent editorial choice as there is a bit of a mystery about it. Why is the doctor “rouge”, one will ask? I don’t think that “red as in communist” will spring immediately to mind. Rather “red as in blood”, I’d say. So one needs to read the book to find out.
    Brings to mind “Le Rouge et le Noir”. Difficult to guess what the two colours refer to/symbolize.
    The title has been translated into English variously as Scarlet and Black, Red and Black, and The Red and the Black.

  17. Sem January 16, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I read your articles always with pleasure. I too have just started a blog that refers to translations, language and life in general. I hope to make it at least half as good as yours is.
    I have read this article with amusement as situations like your happen to me too. I recently discovered the word ‘ditto’ in English. My inquiry about the meaning of the word produced a response close to ‘doh’ described by you. That is what I like about this field: one never gets bored, and always learns something new :)).
    Sem (Essentials)

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