Executive Summary: Beats me.
Dear Word Detective: My buddy and I were wondering what the origins of the word “bamboozled” were. I know it means to take advantage of someone in a business transaction, but does it have Asian roots, with the “bamboo” root of the word? — Jonnie Wethington.
That’s an interesting hunch, and one that never occurred to me. Come to think of it, I could probably concoct a superficially plausible story about sailors in the Far East guzzling booze made from bamboo and waking up with their wallets gone. But that, as Richard Nixon once declared in a slightly different context, would be wrong.
You mention business dealings in connection with “bamboozle,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “to take in by elaborate methods of deceit; hoodwink.” But it’s worth noting that this is a presidential election year here in the US, and a cynic (that’s me) would say that we’re knee-deep in bamboozlement already with more than two months to go. It’s enough to drive one to guzzling bambooze, if there is such a thing.
What makes dreaming up a nifty story about “bamboozle” so tempting is the unfortunate fact that the actual source of the word is shrouded in mystery. (I like “shrouded in mystery” much better than “unknown,” don’t you?)
What we do know about “bamboozle” is that it first appeared in English at the beginning of the 18th century, just in time to make the list Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”) was compiling of words that were, in his opinion, corroding, if not destroying, the English language (as outlined in his “The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue,” 1710). Swift also, by the way, objected to the words “mob” and “banter,” as well as the contractions “I’d” and “can’t.” Since most of the terms that drew Swift’s ire were, at that time, slang used by the lower classes in England, it’s fair to assume “bamboozle” originated in the same precincts.
One of the more plausible theories about the origin of “bamboozle” ties it to the Scots word “bombaze,” meaning “to confuse or mystify.” Efforts have also been made to connect it to the French word “embabouiner” meaning “to make a fool of” (literally, “to make a baboon of”). It’s also possible, of course, that “bamboozle” was simply dreamed up out of thin air. That’s never a very satisfying explanation, but English is full of words that were invented to fit a momentary need and then went on to lead long and happy lives.
“Gobbledygook,” for instance, was coined in 1944 by US Representative Maury Maverick (grandson of Sam Maverick, whose habit of not branding his cows gave us “maverick” meaning “independent”). Rep. Maverick, overseeing factory production during WWII, described the doubletalk and jargon he was encountering from government officials as “gobbledygook” one day, and the word was an instant hit. He later explained that “gobbledygook” was his attempt to imitate the sound a turkey makes. But in one inspired moment he gave us the perfect word for the sound a bureaucracy makes.