By Anatoly Liberman
Two circumstances have induced me to turn to bamboozle. First, I am constantly asked about its origin and have to confess my ignorance (with the disclaimer: “No one knows where it came from”; my acquaintances seldom understand this statement, for I have a reputation to live up to and am expected to provide final answers about the derivation of all words). Second, the Internet recycles the same meager information at our disposal again and again (I am not the only recipient of the fateful question). Since the etymology of bamboozle is guesswork from beginning to end, it matters little how often the uninspiring truth is repeated. Below I will say what little I can about the verb.
Bamboozle probably appeared in English some time around 1700, that is, roughly when it was first recorded. However, “appeared in English” does not mean “was coined,” for a word may exist in another language for any period of time before English absorbs it. Another problem is the definition of “English.” Bamboozle penetrated “polite society” at the beginning of the 18th century, but a provincialism will occasionally reach the capital and become part of common slang (like the word slang itself, for example) after a long underground existence in a dialect. Obscene words and words current in criminals’ language may also gain acceptance (in the rare cases they leave their natural environment) hundreds of years after their emergence. So we can only suppose that bamboozle was noticed rather than coined in London around 1700. Charles Camden Hotten, the author a famous slang dictionary, quoted Jonathan Swift, who had heard that bamboozle was invented by a nobleman during the reign of Charles II (1649-1688). Hotten was justified in doubting the accuracy of such an early date, even though he did not have the benefit of having the first volume of the OED on his desk. Those who lived 200 years ago knew that bamboozle was recent slang, and their opinion should be trusted. If a nobleman had made the verb popular in the second half of the 17th century, it would not have lain dormant so long: literary men would have made use of it.
In a search for the origin of bamboozle, some insecure roads lead to Rome, others to Paris (that is, to Italian and French). The problem is that the syllables bam, bum, and bom are so obviously onomatopoeic (compare boom) and expressive that words containing them can be found in most languages. They usually denote noises, little children, someone who can be duped like a baby, puppets, and so forth. Bamboozle may be an alteration of some such word, for instance, of French bambocher “to play pranks” or Italian imbambolare “to make a fool of one.” Close enough is German Bambus “a good-for-nothing; idler” (with several other related senses, as in Bambusen “bad sailors”), possibly of Slavic origin. Bambus has for a very good reason never been considered the etymon of bamboozle, but the similarity between the two words is striking.
The idea of borrowing is persuasive only when we succeed in showing how a foreign word reached its new home (through what intermediaries and in what milieu). Bamboozle surfaced among many other slang words at an epoch when London was swamped with such neologisms, and the only support we have for reconstructing its past is that at approximately the same time its synonym bam came into use. If bam is the source of bamboozle, an Italian or French source must be ruled out, but if bamboozle was “abbreviated” into bam, all the questions remain.
Contrary to some of the most eminent etymologists, I tend to think that the story began with bam, a word suggesting silliness. The second b hints at reduplication (as in bonbon, literally good-good, goodie-goodie). The vowel sound oo has the ability of giving a word an amusing appearance. Whoever hears snooze, canoodle, and nincompoop begins to smile; add boondoggle to this list. Hence the idea of the “ooglification of American slang,” formulated in this form by American linguist Roger Wescott: if you want a word to sound slangy, substitute oo for its stressed vowel. An association with booze may also have helped, and -le is a typical suffix of frequentative verbs. To put it differently, bamboozle looks like a fanciful extension of bam. Even from a phonetic point of view it seems hard to believe that bamboozle, a funny and colorful word with stress on the second syllable could have been reduced to bam.
In British dialects, bamfoozle “deceive” has been recorded. The starting point in the history of bamboozle may have been bam and bamfoozle, which later yielded bamboozle. Bamboze, bumbaze, bamboze, and bambosh, all referring to abuse and deceit, also exist. Against this background, there is probably no need to posit a Romance etymon. Ernest Weekley began his entry on bamboozle most reasonably: “Perh[aps] connected with the onomat[apoeic] bab- (babble, baby, baboon, etc.),” but then cited a French and a Catalan verb. In the first edition of his dictionary, Skeat traced bamboozle to thieves’ cant, namely, to the phrase a bene bouse “a good drink.” Salutations used when presenting a drink to a guest do sometimes merge into compounds. Such is wassail, ultimately from Old Norse ves heil “be in good health!” (in Old English, the same phrase existed but in a slightly different form). Drinking songs have also been looked upon as the source of some words. Thus, lampoon, from French lampon, presumably goes back to French lampons “let us drink!’ (this looks like a folk etymology; however, the only other etymology I know is not much better), but the idea that bamboozle originated in such a context lacks plausibility, and later Skeat gave it up. In the last (concise) edition of his etymological dictionary he said curtly: “Unknown,” an uncharacteristic formulation, for he seldom left his readers without some hypothesis, however tentative. Reference to Romany (“Gypsy language”) has no foundation either. 18th-century lexicographers called the verb very low, but slang is “low” by nature.
Also at the beginning of the 18th century, the verb banter appeared in the speech of the people whom Swift despised heartily. It is even more opaque than bamboozle. In my database, I have only one note on it. A distinguished German etymologist believed that banter is a “nasalized” variant of batter and listed several verbs whose meaning developed from “beat, strike” to “tease.” This is a far-fetched idea. Here too a French origin was sought (from badiner, familiar to those English speakers who remember the noun badinage “raillery”). British dialectal bant “vigor; to conquer; haggle,” another putative etymon of banter, has such a limited geographical distribution that it could not claim success in London. Nor is its meaning close enough to “friendly teasing.” In Skeat’s concise version, referred to above, we again read: “Unknown.” It is curious that 200 years ago London wits reveled in new words whose descent is enveloped in almost complete darkness.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”