Bats in the Belfry – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking at a colleague at the office going “crazy” after the boss let them go? If they are having a Jerry Maguire moment, you can say they have “bats in the belfry” regarding their behavior.

This post unpacks everything you need to know about this idiom, its origin, and how to use it in conversation.

Bats in the Belfry Meaning

The idiom or phrase “bats in the belfry” means to exhibit eccentric or crazy behavior. Bats fly around erratically when disturbed in their cave, causing a chaotic scene that leaves everyone feeling panicked.

So, many people apply the phrase to behavior in people walking around talking or shouting or using erratic hand gestures. It may also describe the behavior when people try to shoo-away flies or insects flying around their heads.

Bats in the Belfry Example Usage

“Toms been upset all morning and talking to himself; he’s behaving like he has bats in the Belfry.”

“Kim lost it at work today; she had bats in the belfry.”

“Angie looks terrible in that outfit. Does she have bats in the belfry?”

“The neighbors won’t turn down the music; if they don’t stop, I’m going to get bats in the belfry.”

Bats in the Belfry Origin

The phrase “bats in the belfry” has an interesting origin. The belfry is the dedicated space on a church steeple for the bell. The priest would ring the bell on a Sunday morning to announce mass to the community.

However, the belfry also presented the ideal resting and breeding place for local bat populations. As a result, the bats living in the belfry would often ring the bells as they were leaving the belfry. So, the phrase bats in the belfry originate from this phenomenon, tracing back to the 1900s in America.

The Newark Daily Advocate, a local Ohio-based newspaper, was the first recorded publishing of the phrase, reading from its October 1900 publication.

“To his hundreds of friends and acquaintances in Newark, these purile [sic] and senseless attacks on Hon. John W. Cassingham is akin to the vaporings of the fellow with a large flock of bats in his belfry.”

The phrase gained traction in literary circles, and many authors and poets used it until 1919, when the term started to lose relevance. Still, poets and authors like Sarah Graves, E. C. R. Lorac, Bryan M. Long, and David Lewis Paget used the term in their work.

Phrases Similar to Bats in the Belfry

  • Lost their mind.
  • Gone nutty.
  • Losing it.
  • Throwing a fit.
  • Throwing a tantrum.
  • Going mad.

Phrases Opposite to Bats in the Belfry

  • Of sound mind.
  • They know what they are doing.
  • Competent and responsible.
  • Sober minded.
  • Clear thinking.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Bats in the belfry.
  • Batty in the belfry.
  • Batty belfry.

Ways People May Say Bats in the Belfry Incorrectly

People may use “bats in the belfry” in the wrong context or setting or describe the wrong type of events. For instance, using bats in the belfry to describe noises in the roof wouldn’t be accurate.

People may also use the term in a setting where people don’t understand the idiom. It’s not a common saying in the millennial and zoomer generations.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Bats in the Belfry

You can use bats in the belfry in situations where you think people might understand what you’re saying.

It usually describes someone dealing with mental issues, so don’t use it to talk about others’ problems in an insensitive manner.

It’s also something most people don’t say directly to the face of the person they are talking about in the conversation.

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