British Compressions Lead to 'Bedlam'

Rob Kyff on

We often think of the Brits as being "veddy, veddy" precise in their pronunciation. But, truth be told, they gleefully lop entire syllables from words, pronouncing "immediately" as "meejutly" and "necessary" as "nessree."

I was first gobsmacked by "Britclip" during a visit to London when I asked a native chap for directions to the "Marylebone" neighborhood. After hesitating, he blurted, "Oh, you mean Mb'n!"

Blimey! -- which, by the way, is a contraction of "God blind me!"

Indeed, we Yanks have inherited the compressed pronunciations of places such as Worcester ("Wooster") and Gloucester ("Glouster") in Massachusetts, and of Marlborough and Norwich in Connecticut, which sometimes become "Marble" and "Nor'ich," especially after a few drinks.

Brit-clip has also produced three fascinating words:

--Bedlam: A priory for the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem, founded in London in 1247, eventually became the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, which, by the 1500s, was serving as an asylum for the insane.

Londoners gradually shortened the hospital's name to "Bethleem," then eventually to "Bedlam." The hospital was so notorious for the wild behavior of its inmates that, by the 1600s, "bedlam" had become a general term for any scene of chaos.

--Tawdry: During the seventh century, Etheldreda, the queen of Northumbria in England, fled her abusive husband to dedicate her life to helping the poor. She died of a throat tumor, which she attributed to her passion for wearing necklaces and scarves as a young girl.


Etheldreda was soon canonized, and the Brits, shortening her name to "Audrey," honored her with an annual festival. There they recognized her fondness for neckwear by selling a scarf called "St. Audrey's lace," eventually clipped to "tawdry lace."

Originally "tawdry" meant "refined." But when unscrupulous, make-a-buck vendors began selling cheesy knock-offs of the scarves, "tawdry" acquired its present meaning of "cheap and gaudy in appearance and quality."

--Maudlin: In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a reformed sinner who washed Jesus' feet with her tears of repentance and wept over his body.

During the Middle Ages, European images of Mary Magdalene usually showed her weeping, so her name, shortened to "maudlin," came to mean "tearful, lachrymose," and eventually "effusively sad or full of self-pity; excessively sentimental."

A sob story, indeed.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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