The Origin Behind The Word 'Tomfoolery'

Let's do a little "tomfoolery" check, shall we? Sashaying across a city crosswalk in a pink tutu while lip-syncing Lady Gaga into a bundle of dried flowers: check. Dressing up your cat in a jester costume to put on a puppet show-like stage performance: check. See also: "tomcatfoolery." Standing on a rolling chair with a bucket on your head and having a friend spin you around: no, that's just being an idiot. 

So "tomfoolery" is a bit silly, but harmless, maybe a bit embarrassing (both to the watcher and the doer), but isn't mean-spirited. Kind of like a jester, or a "fool," by the 12th-century English job title (per History Extra). You know: multi-talented court entertainers who could sing, dance, juggle, play instruments, and also "leap, whistle and fart," as King Henry II annually requested of his favorite fool Roland le Pettour.

Well, as World Wide Words explains, there was once a legendary fool named Thomas Skelton, entertainer to the Pennington family at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, England, north of Manchester, who lived around 1600. If stories are to be believed, Skelton wasn't necessarily as harmless as tomfoolery. Tales say he used to hang around outside the family castle under a tree, giving people wrong directions, so they might wander into a river or marsh and die. Per the BBC, he's also credited with chopping off the head of Sir Pennington's daughter Helwise's lover. However, the origins of "tomfoolery" likely predate this one, very nasty Tom. 

Acting like a Tom Fool in medieval England

As it turns out, "Tom" was a name used for centuries before Thomas Skelton to describe anybody who was, well, an idiot. "Tom Fool" was a general, catch-all name similar to how we might say, "He's a real Joe Blow" to talk about bland, generic guys. Roughly 700 years ago, someone might have gossiped to a friend, "Did you see how he was acting last night? What a Tom Fool!"

As World Wide Web says, the title "Tom Fool" first appears in writing in the early 1300s as "Thomas fatuus." "Fatuus" is Latin that's kept the exact same meaning as our modern English "fatuous": foolish, idiotic, moronic, imbecilic, etc. This makes "Thomas fatuus" into a sort of binomial nomenclature similar to "Homo sapiens": a "Tom" of the fatuous type. The shift from Latin to English first showed up in 1356.

It took until the 1600s for the title "Tom Fool" to transform from its scornful description of an idiot into its more modern, foolish entertainer-type meaning. "Tom Fool" was even a generic role in stage productions, particularly masked, garishly costumed mummers' plays performed at Christmas, Easter, or All Souls' Day. The bard himself, Shakespeare, might have bitten off a combination of the generic character "Tom Fool," plus the murderous jester Tom Skelton, to fashion The Fool for his epic of epics, "King Lear" (1608). 

The noun generally describing Tom Fool's actions, "tomfoolery," didn't appear in print until the 1800s.