The Origin of the Expression “Beside Myself”

Katy J. asks: Why do we say “I was beside myself”?

crazyDating back to the dawn of Modern English, the expression “beside myself” has been used to denote someone not in his right mind.

After William conquered England in 1066, French became the language of scholars, clergy and nobility in Britain and remained so even throughout much of the grinding 100 Years War between England and France (1337-1450s). However, by the end of that conflict, the English were pretty much done with anything French.

During the Middle English period (around 1100-1500), books were rare, having to be hand-copied, and were mostly written in French or Latin. As the English became more embittered with the French, a desire arose among the British to establish the language of the common people, English, as that of the entire country. One effort to accomplish this was to print books in English, not only for the students and dons at its premier universities Oxford and Cambridge, but for the general populace as well.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-1492), who learned the art of printing in Cologne, France, while translating The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye from French to English, established the first English printing press at Westminster. Cornering the burgeoning book market, he immediately began to print original English works (i.e., The Canterbury Tales), as well as translations (often from French editions). Notably, in 1490, he translated the Aeneid from a French version, Eneydos.

In the work, dedicated to King Henry VII’s son, Arthur, Caxton translates the French phrase, “hors de soi” (meaning “outside herself”) to “mad & beside herself” (with regard to Dido’s mental state when she learned of Aeneas’ departure), marking the first time the expression is used in print.[1]

Note that the substitute of “beside” for “outside” was perfectly appropriate since, at that time (although today obsolete), “outside” was one of the well-used meanings of “beside,” having first been recorded in the English Wycliffte Sermons in the 1370s.

In any event, between the Eneydos, the Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur, as well as 100 or so other books, Caxton’s efforts at bringing English to England helped standardize its spelling and ushered in the Modern English era (1500 – present).

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Bonus Facts:

  • The word “mad” dates back to the late 13th century (the Middle English period) and originally was used to describe an aggressive (in particular, rabid) animal. Shortly after in the early 1300s, it was applied to people who were out-of-control and dangerously imprudent, and within a few years “mad” took on the meaning of being carried away or wildly excited as well as insane and mentally unbalanced.
  • Most of the “selfs” (i.e., yourself, herself, himself) arose independently during the Old and Middle English periods. “Himself” was one of the earliest, deriving from him selfum, while “herself,” “itself” and “yourself” took on their current forms in the 1300s. “Myself,” a modification of the Old English “me self,” appeared around 1500, while “yourselves” didn’t show up until the 1520s, and “one’s self” until the 1540s. Notably, “oneself,” is a relatively modern form, and it was first recorded in 1827.
  • The use of “one” to refer to the speaker dates back to the Georgian period (1714-1830).
  • The “royal we,” whereby the speaker, usually a person of high office, refers only to herself as “we,” dates back to Old English when Beowulf, in talking about himself, said, “We pæt ellenweorc estum miclum, feohtan fremedon” (translated, I think, to “we have fought, this fight, and fearlessly dared force of the foe.”)[2]
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  • Gnarl

    Great article, one rub.

    “We pæt ellenweorc estum miclum, feohtan fremedon” (translated, I think, to “we have fought, this fight, and fearlessly dared force of the foe.”) -the most popular translation, except you forgot a line of Old English.

    The entire line sentence is:

    “We þæt ellenweorc estum miclum, feohtan fremedon, frecne geneðdon eafoð uncuþes.”

    My version:

    “We that presented great heroic deeds and fought to prevail, ventured against a horrible, unknown strength.” (Talking about the fight with Grendel)

    I used to transliterate works from Middle English to modern, and I think it’s always a little more interesting to try and figure out what they meant. Without accounting for modern grammar/syntax and without guessing the meanings of certain words based on context, it would look pretty cryptic:

    “We that [heroic deeds/good works] [presented/gifted] [great/very much], fought [to avail benefit], [perilous/horrible] [venture against/strive] [strength/violence] [unknown/strange].

  • Hugh Sparks

    I didn’t know Cologne was ever in France. I have seen a statue of Gutenberg in the city of Strasbourg, France, which periodically has been claimed by both France and Germany due to its location directly on the Rhine.