My wife asks interesting questions about words, and the most recent was “Why do we say ‘bedridden’?” I opened my mouth, realized I didn’t have anything useful to say, and turned to the dictionary. The answer is simple but unpredictable, and since others may well be interested, I’m sharing it here. The Online Etymology Dictionary has a good summary:

bedridden (adj.)
also bed-ridden, mid-14c., from adjectival use of late Old English bæddrædæn “bedridden (man),” from bedrid, from Old English bedreda, literally “bedrider, bedridden (man),” from bed + rida “rider” (see ride (v.)). Originally a noun, it became an adjective in Middle English and acquired an –en on the analogy of past participle adjectives from strong verbs such as ride.

So it was originally ‘bed-rider,’ which makes sense, and due to the sort of morphological scrambling languages are subject to, it looks like it means ‘ridden by a bed,’ which doesn’t.


  1. Presumably another part of the story is that there are various -ridden compounds meaning something like “troubled or oppressed by X”: priest-ridden, hag-ridden, etc. The semantics isn’t quite the same, but is not too far for analogy.

    E. R. Eddison (whose hackhood or otherwise we argued about a while ago) in Mistress of Mistresses mentions a “troll-ridden Arctic night”; when I first read this in my teens I thought it meant “a night on which the trolls ride”, which thrilled me both because of the image and (as I thought) the syntactic creativity of its expression, but it was really just another -ridden ‘troubled by’ compound like the above.

    What kind of compound is OE bedreda? Is the second member just the verbal root plus -a? I don’t think I knew OE could do that.

  2. I thought this was going to be about people thinking it was pronounced be-dridden, like those who interpret misled as the past tense of misle.

  3. Yes, I probably should have mentioned that, considering that I was one of those people.

  4. “He was not only be-dridden but bed-eviled.”

  5. @Rodger C: not to mention bed-raggled.

  6. des von bladet says:

    For a modest fee I am willing to claim I always pronounced as ‘be-dridden’?

  7. Once upon a time a young doctor moved into one of Newfoundland’s outports, a place where many of the inhabitants had never seen a doctor. One day he was taking the medical history of an elderly woman. Working his way through the questionnaire, he asked, “Have you ever been bedridden?” She replied, “Oh, hundreds of times, and twice in a dory!”

Speak Your Mind