Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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Going batty

It’s been a year for going batty. We all seem to be at a tipping point in some area of our lives. Many people have been going batty because they don’t enjoy staying at home. Others are going batty by being around family 24/7. I’m going batty with uncertainty.

Every day that I log in to work, I expect to be told my services are no longer required. Or I expect to be told that they’ve cancelled working from home and I will be back to the two-hour each way commute. Only this time I will wear an N95 mask. Or worse, now that they are restricting how many people can travel on public transport, they may not allow me onto the buses and trains I normally catch and my daily commute might increase to 5 or even 6 hours. That possibility really drives me batty.

Not that being batty is a bad thing. I like bats. They're amazing creatures. I see fruit bats flying over my house every evening. We call them flying-foxes here, possibly something to do with their size, but more likely to do with their fox-like faces.

Image: Little Aussie Bat

Flying-foxes are the largest flying mammals in the world, acting as long-range seed dispersers and pollinators for many native trees. They are vital to the health of the ecosystem. Read more about them here.

However, human land needs means chopping down trees and this impacts natural habitat for flying foxes. The gaps between forested areas have become wider so to avoid flying further, flying-foxes have established new roost sites in urban areas. They now also forage for food in urban backyards and orchards.

This means that people see them as a nuisance, but honestly, who is the nuisance here? The humans taking the land for their own use, or the awesome flying mammal making do with what we’ve left for it? Now with the climate becoming increasingly hotter, fruit bats are suffering from heat stress, with huge numbers dying in the heatwaves - upwards of 45000 in 2014, and thousands more in 2019 and 2020 .

Flying foxes dip their bellies in water to keep cool
Image:  Nick Edards, CC BY-NC-ND

It doesn’t help that bats have a bad rap as carriers of the types of diseases that can result in human pandemics (but really, we’re not supposed to be in close proximity to bats, we only are because we’ve made it so). They’re also noisy and their roost areas are smelly. Actually, you could say that about many humans!

I think they’re incredible animals and with such cute faces, but I get that they’re not everyone’s cup of loveliness. Except for this baby fruit bat. Look at that expression! Video here.

Flying fox baby

I’m not sure why people use the term ‘batty’ to mean ‘crazy’. I’ve read a few explanations ranging from being a patient of 18th century psychiatrist, William Battie, to the behaviour of bats in a belfry when disturbed by church bells. Here’s a different take on the origin of bat related words.

DISCLAIMER:  Except for eavesdrop, the origin of all other words and phases is completely made up.

A Mostly Not Very True Story

An old storyteller and his granddaughter were talking one night, while warming themselves in front of the fire. ‘I wonder where the word “eavesdrop” originated,’ said the young woman.

‘I can tell you that,’ said the old man. ‘It’s a little known story but a fascinating one.’

The young woman wrinkled her nose. Her grandfather was known to have been a larrikin in his youth and none the better in his dotage. It had made his stories fascinating if not at all factual.

‘Hit me with your best shot,’ she replied.

‘Well, it started back many, many years ago in medieval times. The law then stated that the water dripping off the eaves of a building should not fall on and damage the land of the neighbouring building. This “eavesdrop” regulated how close the buildings could be.

‘How it came to mean someone who listens to conversations that don’t concern them is a bit contentious. The popular view is that a person who stood outside a building within the eavesdrop and listened to what was being said inside was an eavesdropper.

‘However, I know this is not the case. It is a little known fact that an ancient secret society once used bats to carry secret messages. This is quite logical of course. Secrets by their very nature must be kept in the dark. A bat flies by night so by its very nature keeps things in the dark.

‘These messenger bats would hang off the eaves of buildings. When a message needed to be sent, the message writer would give a soft high pitched whistle and a bat would drop off the eaves and glide down in readiness for receiving the message. The message was inserted into a small gold or silver cylinder called a “tery” attached to the bat's leg.

‘Now it is another little known fact that bats are highly sensitive to silver and gold. It gives them great amounts of energy so they are able to fly faster for longer. So a “bat tery” was not only a receptacle for holding a message – it also aided the bat on its journey. I think you will note that the word is now used for a similar type of powering device.

‘The bat would then fly off to its intended destination. Once it arrived, it would first fly through the nearest belfry and cause the bell to issue one sharp ring. Most people assumed the sound was caused by the wind or by some accidental disturbance; however, to those who knew of the secret message system of bats, this sound caused by “bats in the belfry” was recognised as an alert to an incoming message.

‘The intended recipient would watch out their window for the arrival of the bat on the eaves. Once sighted, the recipient would give a soft high pitched whistle and the bat would drop off the eaves and glide down in readiness for delivering the message. And so our little eavesdropper would have passed on the contents of a secret conversation between two people.

‘As time went by, enemies of this ancient secret society found ways to confuse and intercept the messenger bats by using trained moths. These moths would learn to fly in a large spherical formation which so enticed the bat (moths being a favourite repast) that it would veer off course to follow it. These “moth balls” were immensely effective and heralded the end of the messenger bat.

‘However, many phrases from that era have filtered down to our modern day language. For example, when a secret message was sent to a comrade in need, the sender was said to “go to bat for someone”. The recipient of a secret bat message was said to receive the missive “right off the bat”. When a bat was interfered with and the secret message delivered to an enemy instead of its intended recipient, it was said to “bat for the other team” (although the meaning of this has somewhat changed over the years). These terms have all been attributed to the game of cricket, but their history is far older.

‘I see,’ said the young woman, ‘so let me guess. “Like a bat out of hell” refers to how fast a messenger bat flew when being chased, and “blind as a bat” refers to the fact that the bat couldn't see the message.’

The old man looked at her sternly.

‘Of course not,’ he retorted. ‘I think you are making fun of me.’

‘Well, you are a little batty,’ she said with a sly grin,

He threw back his head and laughed uproariously.

‘You have me there,’ he conceded. ‘Indeed, you have me there.’

Image: tomertu /


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