Looking into the origins of bedridden, I found that the word comes from:

Old English bedreda, -rida, < bed bed + rida rider, < rídan to ride. OED

I find that interesting, but still unsatisfying. Is there a further explanation of why a gravely sick person would be called, essentially, a bed-rider?

Is it simply that people in the Middle Ages were more mobile, so it wasn't uncommon for the gravely sick to be transported to the new place without leaving bed? Could it be related to moving wounded soldiers?

  • 1
    That is an interesting question. I'd hazard to guess that "ride" was/is used because a person is essentially riding it, by definition, except for the fact that it doesn't move. Although, you could make an argument that the bed does actually move through time, so the mere act of being atop it means you are actually riding it. I haven't found anything to support this theory, though. – TheMadDeveloper Jun 14 '16 at 17:19
  • Similar, more modern phrases include "desk jockey", "flying a desk" (ex pilots). No etymological relationship but the concept may be rather attractive. – Chris H Jun 14 '16 at 19:25
  • 1
    The term isn't bed-riding though, it's bed-ridden. It isn't the person that rides, it's the bed: at least in the sense of being a burden. If you cannot move from bed, metaphorically the bed is controlling you. – Spagirl Jun 14 '16 at 20:17
  • Isn't one of the definitions of 'ride' "to be conditioned; depend (usually followed by on)" So a bedridden person would depend on a bed. – user180089 Jun 14 '16 at 21:12
  • 1
    The term "disease-ridden" does not mean that people go around riding diseases. – Hot Licks Jun 15 '16 at 11:54

It appears that bedridden is derived from Old English term bedrida which later morphed into bed-rid, a person who typically and regularly keeps a bed

From Folk Etymology (subtitled: verbal corruptions or words perverted in form or meaning, by false derivation or mistaken analogy) by Rev. A. Smythe Palmer, written in 1969

bedridden the passive form of this word is puzzling. As it stands it would seem to denote one that was ridden or pressed by his bed, rather than one who lay upon it—the paralytic man as he returned home with his burden, rather than as he came for cure, borne of four.

It is the A. Sax. bedrida, bedreda, or bedredda, a derivative from ridam, to ride, rest on, or press; so denotes one who habitually keeps his bed: O.Eng. “bedered-man or woman. Decumbens, clinicus, ” Prompt. Parv. (cf. bedlawyer, Decumbens, ID.). Similarly, hofrede is one who keeps his house (hof), a sick man. The form bed-rid was probably mistaken for a past partc. and then changed to bed-ridden.

Walter W. Skeet (1835-1912), author of The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, also stated that bedridden was derived from Old English bedrida and acquired erroneously the pp suffix -en

bedridden (E.) M.E. bedreden, used in the pl. (P.PI. B. viii.85); bedrede, sing. (Ch. C. T. 7351.) Corrupted from A.S. bedrida, lit. ‘a bed-rider;’ one who can only ride on a bed, not on a horse — A.S. bed, a bed; and rid-a *, one who rides, from ridan, to ride.

| improve this answer | |

According to the OED, one meaning of the word "ridden" is "afflicted or beset with", as in "fog-ridden" or "angst-ridden". I would imagine that bedridden most likely has always meant afflicted by not being able to leave one's bed.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    But according to this source, ridden, meaning filled with or containing something unpleasant or unwanted" is dated 1653, whereas *bedridden is dated before the 12th century. So, while today we understand the expression to mean "to be afflicted", what about speakers of Middle English? – Mari-Lou A Jun 15 '16 at 11:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.