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*