Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Bamboozle"

Welcome to a new feature on Word Routes: Mailbag Friday! This is where we answer your questions about the origins and evolving usage of words and phrases. If you've got a burning question, just click here and we'll do our best to address it in a future installment of Mailbag Friday.

First up is Lisa W. of Smyrna, DE, who writes: "Our youngest son earned the nickname 'The Bamboozler' at an early age, for his uncanny ability to outwit his unsuspecting parents. That got me thinking, where does the word bamboozle come from?"

Bamboozle is an evocative word, meaning "to conceal one's true motives from, especially by elaborately feigning good intentions so as to gain an end." Close by in the VT wordmap are hoodwink, snow, and pull the wool over someone's eyes. Bamboozle appeared rather suddenly on the scene about three centuries ago, and ever since people have been arguing about its origin. Some dictionaries (like Merriam-Webster and American Heritage) throw up their hands and simply say "origin unknown." But what's the fun in that? Let's check out some of the competing theories.

One school of thought is that bamboozle comes from a Scottish word, bumbaze or bombaze, which started showing up in written work around the same time, in the early eighteenth century. You can find this word in the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, where it's defined as "to perplex, bewilder, stupefy," as in this quote from a 1722 poetic history of Sir William Wallace (yes, the Braveheart fellow): "The Siege thus rais'd in Hurry and great Fray, The bumbaz'd Suthron scamp'red all away." (Suthron, or Southron, is a Scottish term to refer to Englishmen, their neighbors to the south.) Bumbaze is apparently a playful elaboration of the older word baze, also meaning "to perplex," in turn from the Dutch word verbazen, "to amaze." A problem with the Scottish theory is that bamboozle originally meant something more like "deceive" than "perplex," so it's possible that bumbaze only entered the picture as a later influence on the meaning of bamboozle.

Another theory, put forward by the etymologist Ernest Weekley, is that it's related to the French word embabouiner, which means "to deceive," but literally means "to make a baboon out of." That's pretty fanciful, but it's not too far from the English expression "to make a monkey out of (someone)." When John Florio translated the essays of Montaigne in 1603, he rendered the French word as embabuinized — a bit closer to bamboozled, but still a bit of a stretch.

Yet another conjecture relates bamboozle to bombazine, a type of fabric that was dyed black and used for mourning clothes in olden days. I'm not sure how you get from bombazine to bamboozle, unless there were fake mourners who were really pulling the wool over people's eyes. And finally some have said that bamboozle comes from a Gypsy (Romani) word, but there's no good evidence for that either. It could very well just have been a jocular coinage meant to evoke the confusing double talk that is the key to the bamboozler's art.

What we do know is that when bamboozle started popping up in the early eighteenth century, it was considered "cant," or low slang. In a 1710 essay on "the continual corruption of our English tongue," Jonathan Swift disparaged the word, saying that it was among a number of recent coinages "invented by some pretty fellows ... now struggling for the Vogue." Other words he put in this category were banter, sham, mob, and bully. Swift probably wouldn't be happy to know that bamboozle and its "corrupt" associates would be firmly entrenched in English 300 years later!

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday June 20th 2008, 3:33 AM
Comment by: Tim D.
While trying to find a definition for the word 'recumbentibus',
I discovered a rather interesting and fun word site called WWFTD....Worthless Word for the Day ( http://home.comcast.net/~wwftd/). Worth bookmarking.
Friday June 20th 2008, 3:40 AM
Comment by: ROBERT B.
Bamboozle - In an old Pogo Comic strip someone trying to cloud the issue used a latin phrase.

In an aside, Fox remarked, "Wonder What the Romans used for the old 24 carat Bamboozle?"
Friday June 20th 2008, 1:15 PM
Comment by: Mark D.
A glance through John Ciardi's wonderful Browser's Dictionary revealed this: "To cheat. to swindle. . . Included by Jonathan Swift in a list of distasteful new slang words much in vogue in early XVIII. But in Am. as verb only, and commonly in the exclam well I'll be bamboozled! . . . Probably a slang variant of Brit. bombasine, a fabric of silk and wool or cotton which, dyed black, was traditional for a woman's mourning clothes. The sense of "a hoax" may have developed because a cheat, dressed and veiled in such mourning clothes, would be effectively disguised to practice a confidence game as a bereft widow."

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Words About Words
Getting meta with words that describe other words.
Orin explores the influence of Italian words on the world of music.
A Way with Words
We chat with the hosts of the public radio show "A Way with Words."