Balmy - barmy
Balmy and barmy are homophones - the third letter of each is silent, and both rhyme with 'army', IPA: /'bɑː mɪ/. Only the first is usual in formal writing: the second is a slang expression and should be avoided. The distinction between their spellings only arose at the end of the nineteenth century; and the two spellings are often interchanged.
AWE recommends the distinction given here. Not all teachers will agree.
- Balmy is the adjective formed from 'balm', the name of an aromatic resin produced naturally by various plants. It is also known as balsam ('BALL-sum', IPA: /'bɔːl səm/) and balsamum, which terms have rather more extensive meanings in horticulture, botany, alternative medicine and archaic practices like alchemy. While balmy may be used to mean simply 'to do with bal[sa]m', the commonest current use is about the weather, where it means 'mild', 'warmer and more pleasant [than the recent pattern]', sometimes with a connotation of 'fragrant'.
- Barmy is the adjective formed from 'barm', an older name in the brewing and baking businesses for what is now known as yeast or 'ferment'.
- It was originally 'the froth that forms as the result of fermentation', including 'the head on a glass of beer', which was often the source of the rising agent used in making bread. Hence barm became the name of the yeast or leaven which became available as an independent commercial product.
- While barmy may be used to mean simply 'to do with barm' ('to do with yeast', or 'frothing'), it is most commonly used as a slang expression for 'full of froth' or 'light-headed', and nowadays as an expression of that view of eccentricity or oddness that attracts contempt which, however inaccurate medically or incorrect in the 'politically correct' sense, collects a vast number of contemptuous descriptions, such as 'nuts', 'crazy', 'bonkers', or simply 'mad'. It's in this colloquial sense that David Lodge named his 1962 novel about National Service Ginger, You're Barmy, and that the most vocal of travelling English cricket fans call themselves 'the Barmy Army'.
- In Scotland, the compound noun bampot (or bam-pot) (the '-a-' like that in 'can' and 'that', IPA: /'bæm pɒt/) means what English slang would call a 'nut-case', which has parallel origins. Co-incidentally, in the days of home-baking kitchens would contain a barm-pot, a container for the 'starter' or leaven of sour-dough bread.
- A barm-cake is a regional name for a bread roll. It is common in the north of England, mostly in Lancashire and the north-west, where it originated. It owes its name to the fact that it was traditionally made with a barm leaven.
- In Hull and neighbouring parts of the East Riding, a local nickname for 'The Beverley and Barmston drain' is the Barmy drain, or Barmy Beck.