the authentic origin of ‘doolally’

doolally - Lancashire Daily Post - 4 August 1939

Four’s a Crowd.—A merry, irresponsible farce that dips frequently into pure crazy comedy. For this they have chosen to give Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland a “break” from their usual story book hero and heroine types. These two lovely young people do very well, but I cannot think that crazy comedy suits them best. Assisting in the “doo-lally” are the dignified Rosalind Russell and Patrick Knowles, again competent enough, but perhaps just slightly embarrassed at all this nonsense. The story cannot be told. It is as thin as that, but the dialogue is crisp, the situations rib-tickling, and its pace terrific. Walter Connelly and Hugh Herbert steal every scene they are in as eccentric millionaire and twittering registrar.

a noun use of doolally, from The Lancashire Daily Post of 4th August 1939



The adjective doolally means temporarily deranged or feeble-minded.

I have found an early use of this adjective in the Yorkshire Telegraph and Star (Sheffield, Yorkshire) of 27th October 1902:


At Doncaster to-day Thomas Burton, a stranger, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and damaging a cell window, etc., at the Guild Hall.
On Saturday Police-constable Campbell followed the prisoner into the Rockingham Inn, and found he had been refused drink. Outside he told the officer that as he could not get a drink he would be locked up. He was removed to the Guild Hall and placed in a cell. Shortly afterwards Sergeant Adams heard the sound of window breaking, and going to the cell found prisoner had broken 14 panes of glass and the w.c. cover.
Prisoner said when he got a drop of beer he became “doolally.” (Laughter.) He was fined 5s. and costs for the first offence, or seven days, and ordered to pay a fine of 1s. and costs and 20s. damage for the second, or 14 days to prison.

This adjective is also used in the sense transported with excitement or pleasure, as, for example, in this advertisement published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire) of 30th April 1938:

doolally - Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire) - 30 April 1938


(Dot’s Dainty Damsels’ Dashing Dancing Displays and Droll Demons’ Daring Dialogues Destroy Depression and Drive Dukes, Dockers and Dustmen “Doolally” with Delight).


The word doolally is a shortening of the military slang expression doolally tap, which can be translated as camp fever. It is composed of an alteration [note 1] of Deolali, the name of a town near Mumbai, former site of a British Army transit camp, and tap [note 2], a Hindustani word for fever, often ascribed to malaria (cf. Persian tap, fever, heat, and Sanskrit tapa, heat, tāpa, heat, pain, torment).

The military slang expression doolally tap was defined for example in Barrack-Room Language, a glossary published in The Lichfield Mercury (Staffordshire) of 14th May 1915:

Doolally Tap.—When a soldier becomes mentally unbalanced he is said to have received the “Doolally Tap.” The word is a corruption of the name of an Indian town, Deolali.

In The Madness at Deolali (Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps – 2006), N. A. Martin explains that the Deolali cantonment, established by the British in 1861, was a transit camp for soldiers, acting as both a training camp for newly arrived soldiers and a point of embarkation for those returning home. He writes:

In the nineteenth century, the trooping season operated during the winter and spring only. This had little effect on reinforcement drafts, but for ‘time-expired’ soldiers at the end of their tours of duty, this limited season could have disastrous consequences. Soldiers posted to Deolali to await repatriation after the end of the trooping season in March would have to wait until the following November for the first troopship home.

N. A. Martin also explains that, at Deolali during the long summer months, soldiers often succumbed to the heat, their misery being frequently compounded by sand fleas. Additionally, due to the presence of gin parlours and brothels in the nearby town of Nasik, alcoholism, syphilis and other venereal diseases were rife. He adds:

Relapsing fevers and episodes of cerebral malaria would have afflicted the rather static population of the cantonment, accounting for the fever, madness and torment of the slang term.

He then refutes Frank Richards’ assertion in Old-Soldier Sahib (1936) that doolally tap originated only “in the peculiar way men behaved owing to the boredom of that camp”, and concludes:

The reason that Deolali became synonymous with mental illness has more to do with the limitations imposed on troop movements by the seasons, the debilitating effect of the summer climate, alcoholism, venereal diseases, malaria, and the difficulties of treating mental illness in the colonies.


Dictionaries record the word doolally used as an adjective only, but I have found noun uses, for example in The Burnley News (Lancashire) of 14th November 1914, which reported the following:

Michael Moffatt, a wounded soldier in uniform, was charged with being drunk on licensed premises. […] He was what the soldiers called a “doolally”; immediately he got drunk he got mad.

In the column Football of The Week and Sports Special “Green ’Un” (Sheffield, Yorkshire) of 28th September 1912, doolally is used as an adverb modifying the meaning of the verb play, and to play doolally means to cause disorder:

Brown showed much better form last week for Middlesbro’, and displayed intelligent leadership, but his shooting was not on the target. I think the Gainsboro’ man will fulfil expectation yet, but I would like to see him get up amongst his men a bit more. A centre-forward should keep the opposing backs on tenter-hooks, and that plays doolally with them.

Perhaps a different word, doolally has been used as a term meant to be obscure, as reported in Our daily bread is baked at night, published in the Derby Evening Telegraph (Derbyshire) of 15th March 1939:

The substance which goes to “improve” the bread—it may be malt, or malt extract, or wheat grain, or something quite different—is every baker’s cherished secret. He and his men refer to it in whispers as “that there” or “doo-lally” or just, enigmatically, as “the thing.”




1 The spelling Doolally, as an alteration of Deolali, is found for example in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle of 9th January 1886.

2 In Mr. Isaacs. A Tale of Modern India (P. F. Collier & Son, New York, 1882), the American novelist and historian Francis Marion Crawford (1854-1909) used the word tap about malaria in India:

The country, my entertainer informed me, was perfectly safe, unless I feared the tap, the bad kind of fever which infects all the country at the base of the hills.

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