Third in our series of extracts from The Accidental Dictionary is the story behind a pejorative term that not only changed its meaning, but changed its sex...
Derived from an Italian word for a baby boy (a baby girl would be a bimba), when the word bimbo first emerged in American slang in the early 1900s it was used both of an unimportant or insignificant man, and a menacing, brutish dolt or bully. It’s been suggested that the word may have entered the American vernacular through songs or stage shows performed by Italian immigrants, but in truth no one is entirely sure how or why it came to be adopted into English. One thing that is clear, however, is that it was originally an exclusively masculine insult—although it didn’t take long for all that to change.
In 1920, songwriters Grant Clarke and Walter Donaldson collaborated on a song called My Little Bimbo Down On The Bamboo Isle. Written for a Broadway revue called Silks and Satins, the song described a “handsome sailor boy” who fell for a beautiful native girl “on a Fiji-iji Isle . . . beneath a bamboo tree”.
Although the lyrics don’t give away too many etymological clues (“I don’t know what bimbo means / But I think it’s something nice,” goes the none-too-insightful final verse), it’s nevertheless clear that the song is intended to be far from derogatory about the girl in question.
However, the song’s portrayal of a bimbo as little more than a beautiful, voluptuous woman soon led to the word being associated with empty-headedness, vacuousness, and eventually promiscuity. A “primer of Broadway slang” that appeared in a 1927 edition of Vanity Fair consequently defined a bimbo as “a dumb girl”, while in The Broadway Melody (1929)—the first talkie to win Best Picture at the Oscars—no-nonsense stage dancer Hank Mahoney memorably threatens another actress with the line, “One more crack from you, bimbo, and you’ll be holding a lily!”
For a time, both male and female versions of the bimbo co-existed: the author PG Wodehouse was still using bimbo to refer to a man as late as the 1940s, writing of “bimbos who went about the place making passes at innocent girls after discarding their wives like old tubes of toothpaste” in his comic novel Full Moon (1947). But by the later twentieth century the male version had all but vanished, thanks in part to a number of high-profile scandals involving beautiful young women and older businessmen—which led to the Wall Street Journal famously dubbing 1987 “The Year of the Bimbo”.
In fact, by the late 1980s the word bimbo had become so exclusively female that a male equivalent had to be reinvented: the earliest record of the himbo dates from 1988.