Do you have “Bats in Your Belfry”?

Bats-In-The-Belfry

Just a little language history…

Do you know where the phrase “Bats in the Belfry” came from? The meaning of the word is “Crazy or eccentric”. Bats are, of course, the erratically flying mammals and ‘belfries’ are bell towers, sometimes found at the top of churches. ‘Bats in the belfry’ refers to someone who acts as though he has bats careering around his topmost part, that is, his head.

Although this phrase sounds like it came from Jolly Ole’ England, it does in fact originate in the USA and is not especially old. All the early citations are from American authors and date from the start of the 20th century; for example, this piece from the Ohio newspaper The Newark Daily Advocate, October 1900:

“To his hundreds of friends and acquaintances in Newark, these purile [sic] and senseless attacks on Hon. John W. Cassingham are akin to the vaporings of the fellow with a large flock of bats in his belfry.”

Ambrose Bierce, also American, used the term in a piece for Cosmopolitan Magazine, in July 1907, describing it as a new curiosity:

“He was especially charmed with the phrase ‘bats in the belfry’, and would indubitably substitute it for ‘possessed of a devil’, the Scriptural diagnosis of insanity.”

The use of ‘bats’ and ‘batty’ to denote odd behavior originated around the same time as ‘bats in the belfry’ and the terms are clearly related. Again, the first authors to use the words are American:

1903 A. L. Kleberg – Slang Fables from Afar: “She … acted so queer … that he decided she was Batty.

1919 Fannie Hurst – Humoresque: “ ‘Are you bats?’ she said.

There have been several attempts over the years to associate the term ‘batty’ with various people called Batty or Battie, notably the 18th century physician William Battie. He was a governor of the Bethlem Hospital, a.k.a. Bedlam, and physician to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunaticks, where he wrote A Treatise on Madness. Despite those illustrious credentials, it was bats rather than Battie that caused scatterbrained people to be called ‘batty’.

Do you know anyone who has Bats In their Bellfry?

BatsinBelfrey

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