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Lexical Chaos

By Edited Jun 1, 2015 0 0

As human beings, we encounter millions of words in our social interactions every day. For the most part, we have a general understanding of what these words mean, but sometimes this lexicon surplus leads to some ensuing confusion. Not many of us ever think to consider where the words actually come from or how they ended up meaning what they do in the English language. There are many English words that have similar, yet slightly different, meanings. For example, look at the words chaos, mayhem, bedlam, havoc, and pandemonium. In English today, these words all convey a sense of confusion or disorder, but they may not have always been so similar in meaning. By taking a look at the etymology of these words, we can decipher how they got passed on through different languages in history, as well as how the semantics of these words have been altered through time.

The word chaos originated in the Greek language with the meaning of "a gaping void . . . or abyss" (Oxford, "Chaos"). About a century later, the word was semantically narrowed by the Greeks from a general void to "the formless void . . . out of which the . . . order of the universe was evolved" (Oxford). A few years after that, the Greeks used this meaning of chaos metaphorically to name one of the most ancient gods in Greek mythology. She was named Chaos because she was the "gaping void" from which the entire universe emerged (Oxford). This Greek word was then adopted into the Latin language. At this point, the meaning of chaos was extended to "a state resembling that of primitive chaos; utter confusion and disorder" (Oxford). This semantic reinterpretation evolved from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet and his writing in Metamorphoses explains the world's history, including how it was created. In this poetic narrative, Ovid describes the Greek god Chaos as an "...indigested mass:/ A lifeless lump, unfashion'd, and unfram'd,/ Of jarring seeds; and justly Chaos nam'd" (Ovid, "Book The First"). Chaos' metaphoric reinterpretation of meaning, then, is based on the idea that the primordial void of darkness symbolizes a sense of disconnectedness, a state where nothing quite fits together and bewilderment ensues. When chaos was adopted into the English language, this meaning of disorder and confusion remained with it.

In Modern English, another word with similar semantics as chaos is mayhem. Mayhem originated as a variation of the Anglo-Norman word maim (Oxford, "Mayhem, n"). The initial meaning of maim, circa 1340, was "a lasting wound or bodily injury," which came from Latin mahemium/maamium (Oxford, "Maim, n 1"). Subsequently, Old French inherited the Latin word as mehaing/meaing, with the same meaning of physical injury (Oxford, "Mayhem, n"). Then, the French gave mayhem a specialized meaning strictly pertaining to criminal law. The semantics of mayhem thus narrowed, around 1447, to the act of causing bodily harm in a legal setting (Oxford). Mayhem was then borrowed into the English language and its' meaning was broadened to all acts of physical violence, instead of pertaining specifically to law. Approximately a century after that, this word underwent another semantic change. Mayhem was reanalyzed as a sense of "rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder" (Oxford). This reanalysis was most likely driven by the concept that many violent acts result in a sense of chaotic confusion. Therefore, there is a plausible connection between mayhem conveying violence and portraying a sense of general disorder.

Bedlam, as used in English today, is a term very similar to mayhem, as it also refers to instances of chaos. The word bedlam originated in Old English around 971AD, which semantically meant "the town of Bethlehem in Judea" (Oxford, "Bedlam"). As the word was inherited into Middle English, its meaning was narrowed. Instead of referring to the town itself, bedlam then signified a specific mental asylum located in the town, "the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem," which people began referring to as bedlam by 1450 (Oxford). This hospital was, at the time, the only place where people with mental disorders could live as inpatients and, as such, continually increased in population. The only living these patients did, however, involved being severely neglected, chained up, and physically and mentally abused. As this asylum became well known throughout the population of Europe (probably due to the continuously loud horrific screaming of the inpatients), the word was semantically broadened to signify all mental hospitals, near the year 1663 (Oxford). Subsequently, bedlam was metaphorically changed using metonymy, which is "the designation of a group of things or persons by means of a word referring to something with which that group is habitually associated" (Hock & Joseph 218). The term's definition was altered to refer to people who are "fit for Bedlam or a mad-house" (Oxford, "Bedlam"). In this way, bedlam could be used as an adjective. To say someone is bedlam, meaning they should be living in a mental hospital, would imply that they are insane. This implication of insanity caused an extension in the word's semantics, possibly due to the idea that if a large number of crazy individuals were brought under one roof, as in an asylum, the result would be "a scene of mad confusion or uproar," a meaning which bedlam maintains to this day (Oxford).

Havoc is another word that has semantically changed through time. This word, which is most likely of Teutonic origin, was used in Old French as havot, appearing in Anglo-French as havok around 1385 (Oxford, "Havoc, n"). Both Old French and Anglo-French used this word with the same sense, specifically pertaining to the phrase cry havoc, which is used by an army "as the signal for the seizure of spoil, and so [the word havoc was originally defined as] . . . general spoliation or pillage" (Oxford). Near the year 1480, havoc was borrowed into English, probably through contact with the French military. At this stage, the word's meaning was extended to the meaning of "devastation, destruction" (Oxford). This extension is probably due to the fact that when an army cries havoc, they often destroy everything in their path, leaving nothing but devastated shambles behind them. Shortly after that, the semantics of havoc was reinterpreted with a meaning of "confusion and disorder" (Oxford). This reinterpretation is, in a sense, a weakened definition from the earlier meaning of "devastation" because the semantic differentiation between "devastation" and "disorder" is simply a matter of degree (Oxford). Devastation can be seen, after all, as a form of disorder that has been blown to epic proportions. However, it is also possible that havoc's reinterpretation may be due to the fact that, when destruction ensues, much is left in disarray. Either way, havoc acquired a similar meaning of chaos, which is how it is now used in modern English.

The word pandemonium was established in the mid-1600s as a combinatorial form of the ancient Greek prefix pan- (meaning all) and daemon (meaning evil spirit) (Oxford, "Pandemonium, n"; "Pan-, comb. form"; "Demon"). The word daemon originated in ancient Greek mythology with the meaning of "a supernatural being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men" and quickly acquired the definition of "evil spirit" (Oxford, "Demon"). As this Greek word was adopted in Latin, circa 1400, the suffix –ium was added onto the root word daemon. This formed the word daemonium, which was used as an adjective to characterize something as having an evil, demonic nature (Oxford). The addition of pan- to daemonium occurred after the word had entered Middle English, which is first seen in 1667 in Paradise Lost, an epic poem written by the English poet, John Milton (Oxford). In this poem about monarchy, politics, and the religious aspects of the fall of man (based on the story of Adam and Eve), Milton invents the word pandemonium as "... the high capital of Satan and his peers" (Oxford, "Pandemonium, n"). In this context, the word gets its' first meaning as "the abode of all demons; hell" (Oxford). With the success of Milton's Paradise Lost, the word pandemonium became known in much of Europe. As it became more and more used throughout the population, the meaning was metaphorically extended, in the late 1700s, from hell to "a haunt of evil . . . a noisy disorderly place" (Oxford). This semantic change could be expected, as the region of hell is generally seen as a very hectic dwelling for lost souls and sinners. Shortly after this extension, pandemonium was broadened further to infer "utter confusion, uproar; . . . chaos," in general, instead of simply a location of said chaos (Oxford). This meaning was inherited, along with the word, into the modern English language.

The words chaos, mayhem, bedlam, havoc, and pandemonium did not always convey the same meaning of confusion and disorder. Whether these words have their roots in Greek, French, or Latin, they all ended up in the English language one way or another. The semantic changes that these words underwent in order to be so similar in meaning today are due to the ways in which they were made well known throughout the world's population. Mayhem became known through the legal system, as it pertained to criminal law, whereas havoc spread through society due to military orders. The term bedlam may never have referred to chaotic situations had it not been for the insanity of the Hospital of St. Mary in Bethlehem. As for chaos and pandemonium's current meanings, we have brilliant poets, Ovid and Milton (respectively), to thank. These five similarly meaning words took very different paths to get to where they are today, but, in the end, they are just five more words added to the chaotic mess of millions that we encounter in our daily lives.


Hock, Hans & Joseph, Brian. Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. 2nd ed. Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin, 2009.

Ovid. "Metamorphoses." Trans. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al. The Internet Classics Archive. 1994-2009 Daniel C. Stevenson: Web Atomics. 11 Nov. 2009 .

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press 2009. 20 Oct. 2009 .



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