Some words pop up in our language’s past at odd conjunctures, seemingly out of nowhere. They “bamboozle” us, in their weird ways, confounding amateur philologists and veteran etymologists alike with their mysterious origins and twisting histories. I must thank a loyal reader and fellow lover of words, Herbert, for suggesting this week’s bamboozling boondoggle of a word. It’s truly fans like him that make these lexical expeditions fun and rewarding.
All that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can say about “bamboozle” is that it “appears about 1700,” and that it is mentioned by no less a figure than Jonathan Swift, in issue No. 230 of Sir Richard Steele’s news-magazine, in September 1710. Swift complains of “the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of 20 years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred.”
Sound familiar? For as long as English has been assimilating words, well-meaning men and women of letters have been worried about its degradation. And yet since we have a bit of a mongrel tongue to begin with (incorporating, as it stands, Germanic, Scandinavian, French, and continental words of all stripes), I wonder what, exactly, they’re so worried about.
As an example of the language’s corruption, Swift mentions “certain words invented by some pretty fellows: such as ‘banter,’ ‘bamboozle,’ ‘country put,’ and ‘kidney’ … some of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others [of which] are in possession of it.”
While Swift would be vexed by the enduring presence of “banter,” and like words, others, such as “country-put” (slang for a “country bumpkin”), have faded away. There was a concern at the time that journalism, still largely in its infancy, was muddying Britain’s literary culture. It had a tendency to suck up slang words and spread them far and wide, blurring the then-fine distinction between low and high culture — uncomfortably “struggling for the vogue,” as Swift put it.
The OED says that writers of Scottish extraction especially liked and used “bamboozle,” which eventually became synonymous with any attempt to “deceive by trickery, hoax, cozen, [or] impose upon.” In case you were wondering what “to cozen” is all about, it is a similar slang word, meaning, “to cheat” (and one that “arose among the vagabond class,” as the OED says).
By the early 19th century, “bamboozle” had survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that often befell trendy words and developed some finer shades of intentionality. “To bamboozle away,” “to bamboozle into,” and “to bamboozle out of” are expressions that have all melted their way into “proper” (well, perhaps not entirely proper) English.
As the summer surges along, I hope you get a chance to “bamboozle” a bit of bamboozling into your conversations today. It might be the cause of some eyebrow-lifting, just as it once caused Steele and Swift to fret about having to “depend upon the caprice of every coxcomb, who, because words are the clothing of our thoughts, cuts them out, and shapes them as he pleases, and changes them oftener than his dress.”
If you have any word ideas or questions for next time, please send them to me at email@example.com. Until then, take care, and enjoy the long rest of your summertime.
Reach opinion writer Will Mari at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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