Is the summertime “balmy” or “barmy”? Maybe it depends on your disposition. Maybe it depends on your choice of drink. But only one of these words means warm and soothing.
The roots of both of these words goes back to the 1500s, when “balm” first was utilized to denote a soothing ointment and “barm” first described froth from fermented yeast. Their noun forms evolved into adjectives over time.
- “Balmy” means mild, soothing, and pleasant, and it’s commonly used to discuss weather.
- “Barmy” most commonly means goofy or crazy, stemming from earlier usage of “bubbling with excitement” or “flighty” as well as “filled with barm.”
The confusion with these two often comes from a slang variant of “balmy” in the 1800s, which was used in the sense of “weak-minded” or “idiotic.” It was at the same time that the lesser-used “barmy” started to gain a similar definition of “wacko.” The confusion of these two words came to a point that a writer in an 1896 issue of the Westminster Gazette wrote, “Should not ‘balmy’ be ‘barmy’? I have known a person of weak intellect called ‘Barmy Billy’… The prisoner… meant to simulate semi-idiocy, or ‘barminess’, not ‘balminess’.” And thus, with this written clarification, the two words largely regained their unique definitions again, the definitions we most commonly use today.
“Barmy” isn’t nearly as common in American English as it is abroad, but the distinction is worth knowing. Now which one do you think of when you think of summertime?
Writing Tip 184.1: Did you know that the shape of the bubbles in beer foam has a name? They are “orthotetrachidecahedrons.” I bet you can’t say that one after a few drinks. Actually, I’m not sure I can say it without any drinks.