Tom Defined and the History of Toms

One writer noted that “between ‘Tom’ and ‘Jack’ there is vast difference.”[1] That was because whereas Jack was sharp and shrewd, TOM was said to be nothing more than an “honest dullard.” Among the honest dullard’s named TOM were also numerous fools. TOM FOOL was a clumsy, witless, and stupid person who practiced TOM FOOLERY, which was “coarse, witless jokes.” There was also TOM LONY a simpleton and TOM NOODLE described as a “mere nincompoop.” TOM THE PIPER’S SON was none to bright either as he “got well basted, and blubbered like a booby.”[2]

One interesting TOM from history is TOM TIDLER, who was supposedly none to bright against his sharper rivals when he tried to maintained TOM TIDLER’S GROUND, a phrase that reportedly comes from an ancient children’s game. The game consisted of one child standing on a heap of stones trying to prevent invaders from rushing the heap and crying, “Here I am on TOM TIDLER’S GROUND.”[3] Charles Dickens found the phrase interesting enough that he wrote a short story titled TOM TIDLER’S GROUND in 1861, and he used the phrase in his novels Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Dombey and Son. Later, others also found TOM TIDLER’S GROUND interesting because in the 1900s, it was the title of a poem, novel, and song.

TOM THUMB is even more famous than TOM TIDLER. He began as a character in English folklore for adults and apparently showed up after TOM TIDLER, who first appeared in a written publication in 1621. TOM THUMB was no bigger than his father’s thumb, and despite his diminutive size, he led an exciting life: he was swallowed by a cow, a giant, and a fish. TOM THUMB was also one of King Arthur’s favorites and was reputedly extremely popular with the ladies. However, over the years TOM THUMB cleaned up his act because by the mid-1700s, TOM THUMB books were specifically created for children, and by the mid-1800s, many versions of TOM THUMB were further sanitized and included some sort of moralizing theme.

Tom Thumb Cover from 1888, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tom Thumb Cover from 1888. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another TOM THUMB was GENERAL TOM THUMB. This TOM THUMB was the stage name for Charles Sherwood Stratton, a little person who achieved fame as “midget” performing in P.T. Barnum’s circus in the 1800s. GENERAL TOM THUMB was described as a “pleasing little fellow … [with] a lively, good-natured, and frolicsome disposition.”[4] He was born on 4 January 1838 to parents of normal size, and there was nothing remarkable when he was born as he weighed 9 pounds 2 ounces. However, at five months it was noticed that although he gained weight he had barely grown in height and this pattern continued until at 12 years of age, he weighed 15 pounds and was only 2 feet 1 inch tall. In 1863, he married another little person, Lavinia Warren, and when he died of a stroke in 1883, he was 3.35 feet tall and weighed 71 pounds.

General Tom Thumb and His Wife Lavinia Warren, Courtesy of Wikipedia

General Tom Thumb and His Wife Lavinia Warren, Courtesy of Wikipedia

TOM O’ BEDLAM was no TOM TIDLER, TOM THUMB, or GENERAL TOM THUMB. In fact, TOM BEDLAM was a term used in Early Modern Britain to describe various vagrants or beggars, known as mendicants, who feigned mental illness. Supposedly, the name originated around 1644 and began when Bethlehem Hospital, which was the first hospital to specialize in dealing with the mentally ill, could only accommodate six lunatics. Despite the limited capacity, the hospital allowed 44 lunatics to be admitted and with the overcrowding bedlam occurred (a word that originated at the hospital to describe the madness and chaos). This then resulted in about half of the lunatics being turned out, and these TOM O’ BEDLAMS then wandered around chanting mad songs.

Other TOMs from history are not mad lunatics. For instance, a girl known as a TOMBOY was a term formerly applied to romping girls, or in other words, harlots. There was also the term TOM TAILOR, used for tailors in general, and the waterman was named TOM TUG. The thick-headed, ponderous male cat that howls and fights to maintain his territory is known as a TOM CAT, and GREAT TOM is an enormous bell that chimes out the hour in the Lincoln Cathedral weighing five ton eight hundredweight. If you needed a stiff drink you asked for a MIGHTY TOM OF OXFORD because it was a strong, intoxicating type of gin, but apparently it was also a bell, heavier than GREAT TOM but never as popular.

Tom Cat on the Prowl, Courtesy of Library of Congress

A tom cat on the prowl from an International Baking Powder advertisement. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Of all the TOMs of the Regency Era probably the most interesting was TOM DASHALL. He along with his cousin, Bob Talleyho, were the two chief characters created by Pierce Egan and introduced in his book Life in London written in 1821, the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte died. The book was illustrated by the talented English caricaturist George Cruikshank. TOM and Bob became instantly famous due to their exploits in London’s metropolis. They enjoyed such activities as dancing at masquerade balls, riding in Rotten Row at Hyde Park, viewing plays at Drury Lane Theatre, watching horse auctions at Tattersals, seeing exhibits at Somerset House, enjoying political dinners, and observing bear-baiting at Charley’s Theatre Westminster.

Tom and Bob Enjoyed an Exhibition at Somerset House, Public Domain

Tom and Bob enjoying an exhibition at Somerset House, Public domain.


  • [1] Brewer, E.C., Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1895, p. 1234.
  • [2] Turner, J. H., ed., Yorkshire Notes and Queries, Vol. 1, 1888, p. 158.
  • [3] Mackay, C., A Glossary of Obscure Words in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 1887, p. 141.
  • [4] “General Tom Thumb,” in Carlisle Journal, 16 November 1844, p. 3.

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