At least three times in the last few weeks I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about an event or occasion “coming round the bend” — meaning, I assumed in each case, that it’s just around the corner: it will be happening before we know it. It’s coming down the pike.
Elvis did sing about a train coming ’round the bend, and Will Rogers captained the madcap “Steamboat Round the Bend” …
… but these were clearly references to vehicles traveling round a geographical bend.
To my mind, when a person or anything other than a vehicle is coming or going “round the bend”, they’re downright crazy, insane, or out of their minds. And they’ve invariably been “driven” that way. Could this be an Americanism, I wondered — using “round the bend” in a temporal, adverbial sense to mean “sooner than you might think”? Dictionary entries don’t seem to bear that out: the Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjectival phrase as “crazy” or “insane”; Merriam-Webster, a good barometer of American standard usage, agrees, with “mad” or “crazy” being what you are when you’re driven that way: not imminent, but insane. So are my friends just confusing their idioms? Or is this new meaning of the expression coming round the bend (ie. around the proverbial corner) — at least on American shores? You tell me, my American friends.
World Wide Words explores the three main theories for the phrase’s origins, which involve — respectively — river bends, curvy driveways, and nautical knots:
1. The Hudson River State Hospital near Poughkeepsie in New York State – and the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum in Melbourne — were sited round a bend in the river, so inmates arriving there would literally go round the bend. However, neither asylum was anywhere near a bend, so bang goes that theory.
2. Mental institutions had long tree-lined driveways that curved at the end so that no one could actually see the buildings. That sounds plausible.
3. The old naval expression for anyone who is mad (or crazy, in Ameri-speak) comes from the fact that a bend in maritime terminology is a class of knots, specifically those that either join two ropes or link a rope to something else. This might suggest restraining a madman at sea by the use of ropes and knots, or the result of the mental stress involved in trying to work out how to tie some of the more fiendishly complicated examples.
It does seem to be quite knotty, going round the bend. Hopefully no-one reading this blog post has been driven round the bend, unless they’re on a train to somewhere …