Dear Word Detective: Please could you tell me whereabouts the word “balmy” originates? It would settle an argument, as my mother-in-law says it must be a Norfolk saying. We mean “balmy” as in “balmy weather.” I really hope you can help. — Kerrie.
Me too. By the way, I assumed that you were writing from Norfolk, Virginia until I saw the “uk” suffix on your email. I didn’t know you folks had a Norfolk too. According to Wikipedia, your Norfolk was founded by the Romans, but then invaded by the Angles (from whom the English language takes its name), who established two settlements, known as the “north folks” and the “south folks,” which eventually became Norfolk and Suffolk. Call me cynical, but it seems that y’all passed up a substantial revenue opportunity there. It’s never too late to rename them Exxon City and Murdochville, you know.
You specify “balmy” in the sense of “balmy weather,” but “balmy” in all its meanings is the same word with the same origin.
“Balmy” is, of course, an adjective, and behind “balmy” we find the noun “balm,” which first appeared in English in the 13th century meaning, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “an aromatic substance, consisting of resin mixed with volatile oils, exuding naturally from various trees of the genus Balsamodendron, and much prized for its fragrance and medicinal properties.” In this sense, “balm” is essentially synonymous with “balsam” and, in fact, “balm” is derived from the Greek word “balsamon,” meaning “balsam.” Balm has been used for various purposes throughout human history, most notably as an ointment for soothing pain or wounds. A mixture of balm and spices was also used for many centuries to preserve the bodies of the dead, a process still reflected in the modern English word “embalm.”
Given the widespread use of various kinds of balm to relieve pain and distress, it’s not surprising that by the 16th century “balm” was being used in a figurative sense to mean “a healing or soothing influence” (“See here the balms that passion’s wounds assuage,” 1807). The related adjective “balmy,” once meaning simply “producing balm,” took on the figurative meaning of “soothing” (“Tir’d Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy Sleep!” 1742). By 1704, “balmy” was also being applied specifically to mild, soothing weather.
In view of all these uses of “balmy” to mean something pleasant, it’s a bit of a jolt to find that “balmy” has also been, since the 1850s, common British slang meaning “weak-minded” or “insane,” and the connection is not, to put it mildly, obvious. Most likely, “balmy” in this sense comes from the vague, tuned-out and “mild” manner of the afflicted, especially those of advanced age. People who are “balmy” tend to be quietly loopy, not dramatically disruptive.
Another very similar slang term in Britain is “barmy,” which may sound like a form of “balmy” but actually comes from “barm,” the froth in the “head” of a glass of beer. In the 17th century, “barmy” in a figurative sense meant “very excited” (like the fizzy bubbles in “barm”), but in the 19th century “barmy” essentially merged with “balmy” in the “crazy” sense and today the words are used interchangeably.