top of page

Idiom: Tomfoolery

The origins of the term tomfoolery, from the Georgian Era to its earlier inspiration

Are you familiar with the word “tomfoolery”?

The word “tomfoolery” comes to us directly from the Georgian era, 1810, to be specific. Its origins, however, are much older.

The origin comes from the 17th century use of “Tom Fool” to refer to a buffoon or jester, and by the 18th century, it came to refer specifically to a fool. Tale has it Tom Fool was inspired by a real person, namely Thomas Skeleton of the late 16th century, who was considered the Jester of Muncaster Castle in Cumbria—what he was is debatable, as the stories range from his being a simple beggar to being a serial killer. Supposedly, he inspired the fool in King Lear. He is said to still haunt the castle.

By 1810, the words had been combined to become tomfoolery, and in 1812, Horatio Smith, a writer and humorist, used it in a text. The definition shifted from a foolish person to a “foolish trifling,” as in someone engaging in tomfoolery rather than being a tom fool.


bottom of page