- Paul Anthony Jones
(v.) to utterly confuse or mystify
As etymological stories go, this is a good one. (Just so long as it’s true.) The word bamboozle allegedly comes from a French word, literally meaning “to make a baboon out of someone.”
The word bamboozle first appeared in the language sometime around 1700. To say that it has been bamboozling etymologists ever since would be a terrible joke to make, but we’re not afraid of a terrible joke here at HH, so here goes.
It has been bamboozling etymologists ever since, largely due to the fact that it appeared so suddenly in the language—and that it has a number of possible competing etymological theories behind it, none of which appears to be any more believable than the others. There are, however, some breadcrumbs to follow on this particular wander.
One of the earliest records of the word bamboozle in English comes from a 1710 edition of Tatler magazine and an article (written by Jonathan “Gulliver’s Travels” Swift, no less) bemoaning “the continual corruption of our English tongue.”
The article outlined a handful of contemporary words—bamboozle among them, as well as the likes of banter, sham, mob, bubble, and bully—that had been “invented by some pretty fellows” and were now “struggling for the vogue.” In other words, these were contemporary roguish cant terms, whose sudden appearance in the London vernacular was causing much pearl-clutching among the city’s upper classes.
The origins of slang and cant words are notoriously difficult to pin down, and often don’t follow ordinary or expected word-creating rules. But knowing that bamboozle apparently falls into this category of words, and dates from the turn of the eighteenth century, does at least give us some clue to its history.
With that in mind, one theory claims that bamboozle might be a Londonish corruption of an earlier Scots word, bumbase or bombaze, meaning “to astound” or “to stupefy.” It dates back to the 1660s, and in turn probably comes from an earlier seventeenth century word, baze, meaning “to alarm” or “frighten” (which has its origins in Dutch). It’s certainly possible that this might all be one long word chain, and that bamboozle might be a fanciful, slangy expansion of bumbaze, which itself might be a fanciful extension of baze. But there’s a lot of conjecture here—and even less hard evidence.
Another theory claims bamboozle might have been brought to English via Romany speakers from eastern Europe—and, according to at least one nineteenth century guide to The English Gipsies and Their Language, might have its origins even further afield:
BAMBOOZLE, BITE, and SLANG are all declared ... to be Gipsy, but, with the exception of the last word, I am unable to verify their Rommany origin. “Bambhorna” does indeed mean in Hindustani ... “to bite or to worry,” and “bamboo-bakshish” to deceive by paying with a whipping ... I offer [these] suggested derivations ... with every reservation. For many of these words ... etymologists have already suggested far more plausible and more probable derivations, and if I have found a place for Rommany “roots,” it is simply because what is the most plausible, and apparently the most probable, is not always the true origin.
Charles G. Leland, The English Gipsies and Their Language (1874)
As the author of that guide admits, however, those are some very shaky theories indeed. As is another theory that claims bamboozle might be connected to bombast, a word for inflated speech that originally referred to the cotton wool used to pad out clothing.
With all those explanations discounted, then, we’re left with that which brought us here: the French verb embabouiner.
Embabouiner is a relatively old word in its native French, and has been reliably dated back to the late 1600s at least. At its root is the French for “baboon,” babouin, which in turn comes from an even earlier Old French word for a grimace, baboue. In its native French, embabouiner means “to cajole someone into doing something using flattery,” but its literal meaning is clear: if you embabouiner someone, then you make a monkey out of them.
Could it be that this word found its way into the mouths of London’s common cantish speakers around the early 1700s? And once there, morphed into a mispronounced and malformed bamboozle? It’s possible—and without the evidence to support the other theories here, it’s perhaps the most probably explanation we have.