The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Pandemonium’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word ‘pandemonium’ come from? This word, which has come to have somewhat different meaning from its original use, has its origins in a classic work of English literature, where it has a very specific meaning. But what is that work of literature, and what was the word’s original meaning?

The English poet John Milton (1608-74) was the one who coined the word ‘pandemonium’. Indeed, Milton has been called the author responsible for introducing the most new words into the language: Gavin Alexander found 630 new words attributed to Milton, compared with 558 for Ben Jonson and just 229 for Shakespeare (who often gets the credit for introducing or coining new words, when many of them have been shown to be in existence before the Bard used them).

Among the words which appear to have originated in Milton’s writings are fragrance, terrific, padlock, dismissive, debauchery, lovelorn, and countless others.

But perhaps Milton’s greatest coinage was pandemonium. And unlike some of the words listed above, we can be absolutely sure that Milton came up with this one, and that it was an absolutely original coinage, simply because of the way the word was formed and the specific instance for which it was created.

Milton’s most famous work, the 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, tells of Satan’s fall from grace, and mankind’s subsequent fall, brought about (in Milton’s poem, anyway) by Satan himself, who is out for revenge after God kicked him out of heaven. Satan plots the best way to bring about the fall of Adam and Eve by consulting with his fellow demons in Hell.

The name Milton gave to the capital of Hell, where Satan held his high council, was Pandemonium. The word means literally ‘all demons: Pan- is the same prefix which we find in pansexual (attracted to all people), pantheism (finding God in all things), pandemic (found in all places of the world), and so on. And the demon bit is self-explanatory.

Pandemonium is mentioned twice by name in Milton’s epic poem. The first mention comes towards the end of Book I of Paradise Lost, when Satan summons his fellow demons to a ‘council’ at his capital city in Hell:

Meanwhile the winged Heralds, by command
Of sovereign power, with awful ceremony
And trumpet’s sound, throughout the host proclaim
A solemn council forthwith to be held
At Pandemonium, the high capital
Of Satan and his peers. Their summons called
From every band and squared regiment
By place or choice the worthiest: they anon
With hundreds and with thousands trooping came
Attended …

Pandemonium is mentioned again in Book X of Paradise Lost, as Satan’s plan to corrupt Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden comes to fruition (bearing fruit by persuading them to eat the fruit, we might say):

Through the gate,
Wide open and unguarded, Satan passed,
And all about found desolate; for those,
Appointed to sit there, had left their charge,
Flown to the upper world; the rest were all
Far to the inland retired, about the walls
Of Pandemonium; city and proud seat
Of Lucifer, so by allusion called
Of that bright star to Satan paragoned …

So Pandemonium is an actual capital city, with walls and everything. But within a century or so after Milton’s epic was published in 1667, the word pandemonium lost its initial capital letter and began to take on a more general meaning.

In 1779, for instance, Henry Swinburne’s Travels through Spain could make reference to the way that ‘Every province … would in turn appear a Paradise, and a Pandaemonium.’ And a century later, in 1872, Mark Twain could write, in Roughing It, of ‘Natives from the several islands’ who ‘had made the place a pandemonium every night with their howlings and wailings, beating of tom-toms and dancing.’

Pandemonium had become, as the OED has it, a ‘centre of vice or wickedness; a haunt of evil’ and ‘a place or state of utter confusion and uproar; a noisy disorderly place.’

But of course, when most of us use the word pandemonium we aren’t referring to a physical space at all, but to a state of being: namely, a state of confusion or uproar or ‘wild and noisy disorder’ and ‘chaos’ (OED). And this modern sense of pandemonium had already become established by 1827, when Robert Montgomery wrote in his satire The Age Reviewed: ‘Without [i.e., outside],—a Pandemonium seems to sound, where busy footfalls beat along the ground.’

So pandemonium had its origin in one of the greatest works of seventeenth-century literature, where it referred to a specific place. But within half a century, it was being used to refer to a state of chaos, noise, uproar, and confusion. But it’s worth remembering John Milton’s role in originating this word, and its truly hellish and demonic origins.