Hello everyone. I hope you’re having a great week thus far. I’d like to welcome you to this week’s installment of Word Wednesday. For your reading pleasure this week I have selected to research the term “batty” as it pertains to mental health. So here we go….
1: of, relating to, or resembling a bat2: mentally unstable : crazy
Example: batty old lady who lives with 100 cats
1580s, “pertaining to bats,” from bat. Slang sense “nuts, crazy” is attested from 1903, from the expression (to have) bats in (one’s) belfry, also meaning “not be right in the head” (1899).
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, i.e. his head.
It has the sound of a phrase from Olde Englande and it certainly has the imagery to fit into any number of Gothic novels based in English parsonages or turreted castles. In fact, it comes from the USA; nor is it 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 behaviour originated around the same time as ‘bats in the belfry’ and they 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.”
The Phrase Finder is a great resource! I’ll be using it more often in the future. So there it is folks, and it does make sense, once you take a look at the society and culture of the time. (I wonder what people in the future will think of the terms “Like 90” or “beeotch”.)
In closing I’d like to share you with my favourite song about being Batty…