Q&A: The origin of ‘tomfoolery’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, fool's errands…

Q: Hi AWC, I’m feeling a little foolish.

A: How so?

Q: Well, what is it that differentiates normal “foolery” from “tomfoolery”?

A: Well, clearly it’s the arrival of Tom…

Q: Oh haha. 

A: It’s actually a good question. Macquarie Dictionary defines “foolery” as a foolish act or conduct. It then goes on to define “tomfoolery” as foolish or silly behaviour.

Q: That’s not all that different really. Just a bit sillier?

A: Essentially yes. “Tomfoolery” is generally considered a more silly, extreme form of normal foolery. In many cases, the definitions are almost synonymous – perhaps with an emphasis on playfulness in the longer word.

Q: So, you know what my next question is going to be, right?

A: Who is “Tom”?

Q: Exactly! Please tell me it’s a real person.

A: Well, yes and no.

Q: Ugh.

A: The name had been kicking around for centuries and since at least the 14th century, “Tom” was often used generically to describe a common man – much like how “Joe Bloggs” might be today.

Q: The boy next door.

A: Exactly, just an everyday chap.

Q: No, I’m saying that my neighbour has a son named Joseph Bloggs. Lovely lad, mows my lawns.

A: Oh, um, okay. 

Q: He also has a blog. Obviously.

A: Shall we continue?

Q: Yes please!

A: So, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during the 14th century, Middle English gave us “Thom Foole” – the personification of someone perceived to be of little intelligence. Over the next few centuries, this morphed into “tomfool” or “tom-fool”, which by the 1600s had become common as a “buffoon or clown” in a play or pageant. 

Q: Origin story complete!

A: Not so fast.

Q: Ooooorrrrigiiiiin stoooooorry coommmmpleeeete.

A: Hilarious. We mean that there is another theory about the origin – this time about a real man named Thomas Skelton who was supposedly the jester at Muncaster Castle in England. According to the tale, he used to sit outside the castle and play tricks on travellers, and his ghost apparently still haunts the building to this day.

Q: Oooooh that is certainly more fun in a Downton Abbey meets Ghosts kind of way…

A: Anyway, however it came about, it wasn’t actually until the early 1800s that the fully formed word “tomfoolery” entered the English language – first used by a writer named Horatio Smith in 1812.

Q: Fascinating! So, I suppose “Tom, Dick and Harry” is an extension of Tom being a common name, yeah?

A: That’s right. The first appearance of the three together appears to have been in 1657 when uttered by an English theologian named John Owen. More widely cited is a 1734 song that includes “Farewell Tom, Dick and Harry, Farewell, Moll, Nell and Sue” in its lyrics.

Q: Sounds like a banger.

A: Any other “Tom” questions?

Q: Well sure, while we’re here. What about a “peeping Tom”?

A: You’d like to expose the naked truth?

Q: Haha, yes please.

A: Well it relates to an incident on the streets of Coventry that seemingly took place all the way back in the year 1040. Legend states that a woman, sympathetic to the plight of the town’s citizens, was protesting the oppressive taxes being placed on the people by her husband Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. He told her that he’d remove the taxes  – but only if she rode naked through the town on horseback. So she did exactly that.

Q: Oh wait, that’s Lady Godiva! 

A: Yep. It’s not certain this happened by the way (think of it as a page 3 equivalent in an 11th century tabloid newspaper), but that’s what legend says.

Q: Riding through town starkers on a horse! That would have been quite a sight to see.

A: Well, here’s the thing. According to the tale, out of respect for her, all the townsfolk went inside as she clip-clopped her way through the town.

Q: Bravo! “Nothing to see here folks…”

A: Well, ahem. Everyone except for ONE person.

Q: Oh no! It’s got to be peeping Tom!

A: That’s right – a tailor named Tom couldn’t resist taking a quick look at her as she rode by.

Q: A “tailor swift look”, perhaps?

A: Groan. It should be noted that this anti-hero “peeping Tom” wasn’t added to the story until 1769 – perhaps as an embellishment to make it a morality fable, as he apparently went blind immediately upon looking.

Q: “Look what you made me do…”

A: Exactly. Whatever the case, his name lives on to this day – meaning to be a voyeur or prying, often with sexual connotations.

Q: Okay, enough tomfoolery for one day. I’ve got Joe coming over to trim the hedges. You’ll be able to read about it on his blog.

A: Nah, we’re good thanks.

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