belfry / bats in the belfry

The word belfry, believe it or not, originally had nothing to do with bells. Belfry is from the Old French berfroi, meaning a wooden siege tower. The word first appears in English c.1300 in the romance Kyng Alisaunder found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 622:

Alisaunder and his folk…Fast assaileden her walle Wiþ berefrei.
(Alexander and his army…fast assailed her wall with a belfry.)

Over the years the meaning shifted from a siege tower to a watch tower (which may or may not have had alarm bells), and then eventually to a bell tower and a church steeple. This sense of a bell tower appears as early as c.1345 in a Latin text, The Sacrist Rolls of Ely1. By c.1440, this sense in English is recorded in Promptorium Parvulorum, an early English-Latin glossary:

Bellfray, campanarium.2

The spelling shift from R to L had occurred by c.1430 when the spelling belfreyes appears in the tale of Sir Generides, found in New York, Pierpont Morgan Library M 876 (olim Helmingham Hall):

He purveid for maygnelles and belfrayes
And othre ordinaunce at all assayes.
(He provided for mangonels and belfries
And other ordnance at all tests of arms.)3

Spelling shifts between L and R, as in berfrey/belfry, are common in many languages, including English. The L and R sounds are formed almost identically, by raising the tip of the tongue close to the alveolar ridge, which contains the teeth. When pronouncing L, the tongue makes and maintains contact with the ridge; when sounding R, it comes close but does not touch. It is very easy to sound L when you mean R, and vice versa.

While we are on the subject of belfries, the phrase bats in the belfry is an Americanism dating to at least 1899, when it appears in William J. Kountz’s Billy Baxter’s Letters:

The leader tore out about $9.00 worth of hair, and acted generally as though he had bats in his belfry.4

This phrase is the source of the sense of bats or batty, meaning eccentric or insane, which both appear in the first few decades of the 20th century. A belfry is a likely place to find bats and the phrase is simply a jocular expression similar to not playing with a full deck or his elevator does not run all the way to the top. In this case the belfry represents the head and brain and bats were chosen for alliterative purposes and because, in a real belfry, the creatures can often be found there.


1Middle English Dictionary, berfrei (n.), 18 Dec 2001, University of Michigan, accessed 27 Dec 2008 <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=byte&byte=13410316>.

2Oxford English Dictionary, belfry, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 Dec 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50019896>.

3Frederick J. Furnivall, A Royal Historie of the Excellent Knight Generides (Hertford, Herts.: Roxburghe Club, 1865), 242.

4Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 102.

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