Word Stories - November 4, 2019 - 3 min

Darker Matters

Our last instalment of Word Stories, with its focus on divine attributes, was all goodness and light. Now, as the days of late autumn get rapidly shorter, we, too, find ourselves in gloomier territory, turning our attention to darker matters. Of course, most of us try to avoid chaos, pandemonium and bedlam whenever possible, but we hope this doesn’t discourage you from reading further: etymologically speaking, their stories are devilishly interesting.


In Greek mythology and in the famous opening chapters of Hesiod’s Theogony, Chaos is personified as the primordial god of primordial gods: the indefinite, shapeless cosmic matter from which Erebus, personification of darkness, and Nyx, personification of night, come to be. The Greek common noun existed before this sense was coined and was khaos, meaning a physical void, chasm or abyss of awe-inspiring proportions such as a deep gorge, gulf or ravine. A more distant etymology is uncertain, but an Ancient Greek verb khaskein exists, meaning “to gape, be wide open”.

From its origins in Greek mythology, the term chaos was transferred during the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Judeo-Christian texts and commentaries. It came to designate the primeval confusion occurring before God’s order, and the advent of human civilization and religious devotion.

In the modern, scientific and mathematical sense, chaos describes a complex deterministic system whose behaviour is prone to drastic modifications caused by slight modifications of the initial data (e.g. the weather). This sense is from the early 1960s (“The chaos condition becomes more accurately satisfied as n becomes large”, The Journal of Chemical Physics, 1960), whereas “chaos theory”—often borrowed by non-scientific discourse—dates from the late 1980s.

The adjective chaotic was irregularly formed around the start of the eighteenth century from chaos and -ic, with an inserted -t- influenced by other noun–adjective couples with an Ancient Greek origin: hypnosis/hypnotic, eros/erotic, demos/demotic, etc.


The word pandemonium was introduced by the English poet John Milton (1608–1674) in his masterpiece Paradise Lost, which retells the episode of the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis. The term was coined by Milton as a proper noun, Pandæmonium, designating the centre of Hell, where Satan and all his demons hold council. Pandæmonium is assembled from the following familiar elements:

  • The Greek combining form pan- “all” (from the neuter form of pas “all”), used in words like panorama, pandemic, pantheon

  • A Latinized spelling of the Greek noun daimōn (“angel, spirit, divinity” and, in later Christian mythology, “demon”)

  • The Latin suffix -(i)um, here indicating an assembly or group, the equivalent of Greek ending -(i)on (see Athenaeum)

Milton’s coinage can also be analyzed, and often is, as the combination of pan- and Late Latin noun daemonium “demon, evil spirit”, from Greek daimonion, a diminutive of daimōn. The presence in the proper noun of the Anglo-Latin ligature æ, adapted from the Greek diphthong ai (as in daimōn becoming daemon), gives further credit to this analysis.

The metaphorical extension of pandemonium as a “place of corruption and evil” and as a “noisy and chaotic situation” is hardly surprising. During the seventeenth century, the senses of the word moved away from religious imagery and came to apply to myriad secular situations.


The word bedlam stems from an informal spelling and colloquial pronunciation of the proper noun Bethlem or Bethlehem, used in the name of the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, the oldest psychiatric institution in Europe. The hospital is still operational today in West Wickham, London, having changed both names and locations a number of times. Its modern and official name is Bethlem Royal Hospital, although “Bedlam” is still a frequent nickname for the institution. It was founded in 1247 near the walls of the City of London as the Priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlem and served a religious purpose. The priory may have welcomed the poor as early as its first year, but by 1330 it had become, at least partially, a hospital, and by 1402 a psychiatric hospital. As it grew in importance, it was invariably linked to ideas of violent or dangerous madness and, broadly, frenzied confusion and chaos. Shakespeare was an avid user of the word. In Henry VI, Part 2, one of his characters exclaims: “What is he mad? to Bedlam with him!” and mentions elsewhere a “bedlam brain-sick duchess”.

Bedlam, as well as bedlamite, also came to be applied to individual patients, as well as to those deemed worthy of being patients. Imitating the style found in the Bard’s previous quotes, Lord Byron writes more than two centuries later of “bedlamites broke loose” (Don Juan, “Canto VI”, 1824) and Walter Scott of a “bedlamite old woman!” (Guy Mannering, 1815).

The proper noun Bethlem found in the name of the hospital is the abbreviation by corruption of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The name is from the Ancient Greek Bēthleem, from the Hebrew bayt lechem, perhaps “house of bread” or “temple of Lachama (a local deity)”.

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