Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

It’s not a crime, it’s a blunder

The author of the pronouncement in the title above is a matter of dispute, and we’ll leave his name in limbo, where I believe it belongs. The Internet will supply those interested in the attribution with all the information they need. The paradoxical dictum (although the original is in French, even Murray’s OED gave its English version in the entry blunder) is ostensibly brilliant but rather silly. We will avoid a comparative analysis of crime and blunder because we have our own ax to grind. The present post will serve as an addendum to the previous two, which were devoted to the troublesome history of blunt. For quite some time old etymologists tried to connect blunt and blunder and both of them with the Old English verb binnan “to stop,” a procedure that doesn’t deserve being called criminal, but blundering it certainly was.

Blunt, as we have seen, always ended in –t, and its presence here cannot be ignored or explained away. Also, though this is not absolutely certain, blunt, despite its comparatively late attestation in a 1200 poem, seems to be a native English word, while blunder is, most probably, a Middle English borrowing from Scandinavian. At first sight, blunder doesn’t pose great difficulties. In the fourteenth century, when it first turned up in texts, it meant “to confuse” and “to move blindly or stupidly.” Old Icelandic blundra “to shut the eyes” is a derivative of blunda “to blink” (so approximately “to blink many times until the eyes close”; a so-called frequentative verb, like stutter, quiver, along with many others ending in the suffix –er), and nearly identical forms occur elsewhere in the Scandinavian languages. But whether blunda and blink are related is far from clear. The hard question is not the history of blink but whether the sense “shut the eyes” could develop into “confuse.”

This a dead end, or a cul-de-sac, or a blind alley. It can indeed be rather confusing to a driver.
This a dead end, or a cul-de-sac, or a blind alley. It can indeed be rather confusing to a driver.

Very close to blund-, as in Engl. blunder, is bland, not the adjective meaning “smooth” but the verb today better known from its doublet blend “to mix, mingle,” another word of Scandinavian descent. (The adjective bland is a borrowing of Latin blandus, and its etymology, irrelevant in the present context, remains a matter of speculation.) The gloss “move stupidly,” used above, makes one think of Engl. flounder (of course, the verb, not the fish name), and in some old dictionaries blunder and flounder were compared. The idea is not so bad, considering that flounder is sometimes believed to be a blend of founder “stumble” and blunder. But despite the fact that flounder was recorded much later than blunder and from an etymological point of view can offer no support to it, it is useful to remember how many fl- words denote unsteady or rough movement. The long list goes all the way from flow, flutter, flicker, and flounce to flip-flop.

It appears that one of the false leads in the search for the etymology of blunder was provided by the noun blunderbuss “a gun.” Blunderbuss came to English from Dutch, where its form is donderbus (donder “thunder” and bus “gun”). Why on its way to England a good, usable gun, despite the not too great phonetic similarity between donder and blunder, was associated with blunder will remain one of the mysteries of the capricious and unpredictable folk etymology. Engl. blunderbuss made some people think that blunder, in so far as it is connected with thunder via blunderbuss, is onomatopoeic. At the Indo-European level, the word thunder does seem to imitate the sound we hear from the sky (compare Latin tonare), but nothing follows from this fact about Scandinavian blundra or Engl. blunder, regardless of whether they are related or not. All things considered, Murray might have been right in thinking that blunder had absorbed the connotations of two verbs, one of them meaning “shut the eyes,” the other meaning “blend.”

Blind-man's buff: most confusing!
Blind-man’s buff: most confusing!

Germanic bland– (with the expected vowel variation, or ablaut, in the root) appears in many words. In this context, the most important of them is blind. As a rule, the names of perceived physical defects and all kinds of deformities are hard to trace, because people were afraid to pronounce them (for fear of “inviting” deafness, muteness, diseases, etc.) and intentionally garbled the sounds. This is what is meant by taboo. The same process affected the names of some wild animals, such as bear in Germanic (bear, unlike Latin ursus, is euphemistically “the brown one”). Centuries or millennia later we have no way of reconstructing the arbitrary changes in such words. But blind and also French aveugle seem to be exceptions to the grim rule (the origin of Latin caecus and Russian slep– is much more problematic). As already noted, the root bland- ~ blend- ~ blund- meant “to mix” and, by possible extension, “to confuse.”

There is some disagreement about both the oldest form and the original meaning of this root. I have cited the interpretation that appears to be the simplest and the most plausible one. Given this interpretation, “blind” means “confused.” Here too the consensus is not absolute, but once again it is perhaps reasonable to refer to the least involved solution. To blend obviously means “to mix, merge,” and no one doubts that blind and blend are related. If what is said here is correct, the definition of blunder “to move blindly” (in addition to “move stupidly”) is not only accurate from a semantic point of view; it also does justice to the word’s etymology, so that blind and blunder end up in close proximity both as words connected by ablaut and as neighbors in their reference to the real world: a blind man is said to “blunder.” For a change, today the conclusion does not inform the readers that here is one more word of unknown and almost unknowable origin. Although some difficulties remain, the whole carries a satisfying measure of conviction.

The triumph of nature rather than one of its blunders!
The triumph of nature rather than one of its blunders!

In 1851 C. W. G., an active correspondent to Notes and Queries, sent the following letter to the journal:

Blunder.—What is the origin of this word? In Woolston’s First Discourse on Miracles (London, 1721), at p. 28, I find the passage: ‘In another place he intimates what are meant by oxen and sheep, viz., the literal sense of the Scriptures. And if the literal sense be irrational and nonsensical, the metaphor we must allow to be proper, inasmuch as nowadays dull and foolish and absurd stuff we call Bulls, Fatlings, and Blunders’. This would seem to imply that in Woolston’s days blunder was the name of some animal; but in no dictionary have I been able to find such a signification attributed to it. The Germans use the words bock and pudel in the same sense as our word blunder.”

No one responded to this query, and I also wonder what Thomas Woolston could have meant. What animal did he have in view? Is it possible that he heard the Gothic word ulbandus “camel” (from an etymological point of view, it is a variant of elephant) and remembered it as blunder? The Russian name of the camel, allegedly borrowed from Gothic, is verbliud (stress on the second syllable). It is even closer to blunder. Mr. C. W. G. won’t hear our answer, but it would be good to clarify an old mystery.

Image credits: (1) dead end sign cemetery. Photo by Martin Alonso. CC BY 2.0 via martinalonsophotography Flickr. (2) Blindemannetje. Jongensspelen. H.A.M. Roelants, Schiedam ca 1860-1870. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Image from page 258 of “Notes of lessons on the Herbartian method (based on Herbart’s plan)” (1902). Internet Archive Book Images. No known copyright restrictions via internetarchivebookimages Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. J.S. Phillips

    If Talleyrand said it at all, what he actually said was “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder” (or “a mistake”). That may not be brilliant, but what is “rather silly” about it?

  2. Paul Nance

    A very satisfying convergence of the evidence. In theory, shouldn’t the semantic connection usually be apparent? But many cognates to have little or no similarity in meaning.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Thomas Woolston (influenced by Origen and allegory) used the word Blunder often, in several of his books, not only in the one quoted above (apparently actually from 1727). Sometimes linked with animals and sometimes not. E.g., 1721: “…metaphorical Bulls, and duller Beasts, called Oxen or Blunders.” 1722: “…gross Blunders on the Scriptures, and fat Bulls that I am to sacrifice.” He often used the word Blunderbuss, too, so that may be an influence. E.g (1722) “…Apocalyptical Beast, which our blunderbuss Ministers of the Letter [as opposed to the Spirit, maybe]” What animal, if any, he had in mind, isn’t obvious to me, on a quick look, but a closer reading may reveal more.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *