Saturday, February 28, 2009

Word/Phrase History -- Bamboozle

Every so often I see a word or phrase in a fairly old text (say 2 or 3 hundred years old), and I think "That's odd...I would have thought that was a modern sort of word!" I've been planning for some time to keep a list of such words, and this is as good a place as any to put it.

So today's word is "bamboozle". Now, had I thought about it (which I admit I hadn't), I would have guessed that bamboozle was a '70's sort of word. Or maybe Roaring 20's. However, I ran across it last year while reading Cecilia (published in 1782), and more recently while recording a chapter of it for Librivox. In Volume Two, Chapter III, wealthy Cecilia's batty, miserly guardian, dressed up as a chimney sweep at a costume party is worried about her trying to run off with a gold digger:

" 'Ah ha!' cried the chimney-sweeper, significantly nodding his head,'smell a rat! a sweetheart in disguise. No bamboozling! it won't do; a'n't so soon put upon.' "
My Random House College Dictionary has this definition of bamboozle: "1. to deceive or get the better of (someone) by trickery, flattery or the like; humbug; hoodwink. 2. to perplex or mystify." It offers no etymology for the word. In such situations, I generally turn to one of my favorite references, namely The Word Detective by Evan Morris. He's got an excellent list of words and their etymologies, histories, etc. each described quite wittily. He finds that bamboozle was used as early as 1710 by Jonathan Swift, though the origins of the word are in dispute.

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