Dear Word Detective: Watching Donald Trump dip his toe into the waters of politics has started me thinking about the various words that describe him. Can you tell me the origin of the word “buffoon”? — John Clogg.
Yeah, sure, no problemo. But I have to note at the outset that I neither endorse nor refudiate use of that term in regard to Mr. Trump. Speaking as a former long-time resident of the Big Apple, however, I must say that I find the national prominence that The Donald has attained a bit surprising. For most of the time I lived in New York City, he was regarded as just a local curiosity on a par with Al Sharpton, Curtis Sliwa or John Gotti. Gotti’s dead now, of course, and Sliwa rates a big “Who?” on most people’s fame-o-meters. (Guardian Angels patrols on the subways, remember?) But somehow Trump parlayed multiple bankruptcies, scary orange hair and a total absence of taste into a national TV career. Things like this make me start to believe all that stuff about 2012.
“Buffoon” is not, of course, a term you would apply to someone you admire. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “buffoon” as “A clown; a jester,” “A person given to clowning and joking,” and “A ludicrous or bumbling person; a fool.” In common usage today, the synonyms that “buffoon” calls to mind are “blowhard,” “pretentious fool” and “loud-mouthed idiot.” The modern connotations of “buffoon” are harshly contemptuous, and it’s very doubtful that even a professional circus clown would feel comfortable being labeled a “buffoon” these days.
But the first “buffoons,” when the term first appeared in the 16th century, were just that — professional comic actors or jesters (Samuel Johnson defined the word as “A man whose profession is to make sport by low jests and antick postures”). English borrowed “buffoon” from the French “buffon,” which came from the Italian “buffone,” which was based on the Italian “buffa,” meaning “a jest.” That “buffa,” in turn, was connected to the verb “buffare,” meaning “to puff,” and here things get interesting. It’s possible that the use of “puffing” to refer to jokes was a reference to the light and gentle nature of the jokes and jests of a “buffoon,” or the “puffing” may refer to the jester actually puffing out his cheeks and making other funny faces.
While a “buffoon” was originally a professional jester, by the early 17th century the term had broadened to include amateur humorists, specifically the sort who consider themselves comic geniuses but strike everyone else as jerks and creeps. It was at this point that “buffoon” acquired its modern highly negative connotations. It was also this period that saw the first appearance of the noun “buffoonery,” meaning “low humor, jesting, farce.”
We still use “buffoon” and “buffoonery” in those senses, but modern usage of both terms has taken an interesting twist. While a “buffoon” was once known for making stupid or tasteless jokes, the modern “buffoon” is often a person whose transparently absurd posturing makes him (or, less frequently, her) the object of public ridicule and derisive jokes. Similarly, “buffoonery,” once a synonym for broad, vulgar humor, has come to mean self-important nonsense spouted, often in front of microphones, by a buffoon. Interestingly, given the roots of “buffoon,” this modern sense of “buffoon” fits quite nicely with the adjective “puffed-up,” meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “Inflated or swollen with vanity, pride, etc.; having an inflated sense of one’s importance or worth; pompous, overweening.”