Thursday, December 27, 2012


Brian O'Rourke reposted a question that came up for him a few years ago--which would you rather celebrate, Christmas or Saturnalia? Leaving aside questions of faith and meaningfulness, Brian makes a pretty good case for Saturnalia. As I said there, a week off work would be  more than enough to convince me.

In the course of explaining Saturnalia, Brian mentions that one of the things you get to indulge in is 'tomfoolery'. I think we all know what it means--practical jokes, hijinx, tricks of the kind you get when you don't do the right thing on Halloween. But why "tom" foolery? Is there some prehistoric Tom that everyone blames? Or is this going to be one of those "origin unknown" kind of definition?


 Before there was tomfoolery, there was such a thing as a tomfool, a buffoon or clown of the 1640s, and before that there was the Middle English Thom Foole, a fictional personification of a mentally deficient man. "Tom", in fact, is a stand in for a whole host of common man types, from Uncle Tom, to Tom O'Bedlam, to Tom and Jerry, to Tom, Dick and Harry. It must be something about the shortness of the name that's so appealing. And I'm going to hazard a guess that saying 'tomfoolery' is a satisfying word to say, but that 'tomfool' was replaced in American venacular with 'damn fool'. It has the same sort of notes and accents in it.

Here is a Tom Fool's knot:


I think you can see why. And  here is a famous American racehorse who bears the name:

He was voted American Horse of the Year, and sired a couple of famous racehorses in turn, Buckpasser and Tim Tam. But why no Tom-Tom, Tom?


  1. Since Thomas was a doubter, could his name be connected to the evolution of "tomfoolery"?

  2. I did wonder about that. It seems possible, but Tom seems to be a name that it is easy to attach other meanings to, and not just foolish ones.

  3. It's up there with Jack that way, I guess.

  4. Now, the the Sam Hill could you mean by that?

  5. Enjoyed your tomfoolery. Now looking forward to your Sam Hill entry.

    A favorite bit of dialogue from To Kill a Mockingbird....

  6. That's a great suggestion, Kathleen. I've got another idea lined up next, but that would be a good way to kick off the new year.