The Grammarphobia Blog

Beside yourself? Where’s that?

Q: I’ve been wondering about the origin of the phrase “beside myself.” Any idea where it comes from? And where am I when I’m beside myself?

A: The earliest example of “beside oneself” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1490 translation by William Caxton of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Mad and beside herself.”

The OED defines the phrase as “out of one’s wits, out of one’s senses,” and compares it to expressions in French (hors de soi) and German (ausser sich) that mean the same thing.

Here’s a 1611 example from Acts 26:24 in the King James Bible: “Festus saide with a lowd voyce, Paul, thou art beside thy selfe, much learning doeth make thee mad.”

And this example is in More Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, an 1884 collection from Queen Victoria’s journals: “I felt quite beside myself for joy and gratitude.”

The preposition “beside” literally meant “by the side of” when it showed up in Middle English in the late 1200s. By the late 1300s, it had taken on the sense of “outside of.”

So someone who’s “beside himself” is “outside himself”—that is, “out of his mind.”

In fact, the expression “beside oneself” showed up around the same time as “out of one’s mind,” which the OED defines as “having lost control of one’s mental faculties; insane, deranged, delirious.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “out of one’s mind” is from Polychronicon (c. 1342), a chronicle of history and theology written in Latin by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden and posthumously translated into Middle English in 1387: “And fil anon out of his mynde.”

Oxford notes that the expression is now used in the “weakened” slang sense of “stoned (also bombed, pissed, etc.),” as well as “stupefied, extremely intoxicated, or incapacitated by drink or drugs,” and “bored out of one’s mind.”

Here are a few OED citations for the newer senses:

“He was bombed out of his mind,” New York Times Magazine, Aug. 23, 1964.

“He would only be taken in charge if he was drunk: were he to spend his ten shillings on getting stoned out of his mind the police would happily accommodate him,” the Listener, Nov. 28, 1968.

“She was bored out of her mind, she said, by winter in Glengarriff,” from Round Ireland in Low Gear (1987), by Eric Newby.

“Not when I’m pissed out of my mind,” from “Summer Girl,” a short story by John MacKenna  in The Fallen and Other Stories (1992).

Finally, we shouldn’t overlook “out of it,” an expression that meant “not involved” when it showed up in the early 1800s, the OED says, but that evolved into a 20th-century slang term meaning “confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs.”

Here’s a 1963 example from the journal American Speech: “Drunk: soused, out of it, stoned, bombed.”

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