Word of the Week: Bamboozle

This particular word came to mind because of politics. With the Democratic and Republican races heating up to see who gets the nomination for their party, one person more than any other is becoming particularly vile. I bet you don’t need two guesses whom I’m referring to—yes, Donald Trump. His rhetoric is increasingly divisive and hate-filled, yet so many people are being bamboozled by him.

Bamboozle [bam-boo-zuh l]

verb (used with object), bamboozled, bamboozling.

  1. to deceive or get the better of (someone) by trickery, flattery, or the like; humbug; hoodwink (often followed by into):

They bamboozled us into joining the club.

Synonyms: gyp, dupe, trick, cheat, swindle, defraud, flimflam, hoax, gull, rook, delude, mislead, fool

  1. to perplex; mystify; confound.

Synonyms: befog, bewilder, puzzle, baffle, dumbfound

verb (used without object), bamboozled, bamboozling.

  1. to practice trickery, deception, cozenage, or the like:

He bamboozled his way to the top.

Word Origin and History

1703, originally a slang or cant word, perhaps Scottish from bombaze “perplex,” related to bombast, or French embabouiner “to make a fool (literally ‘baboon’) of.” Related: Bamboozled; bamboozling. As a noun from 1703.

SOURCE: Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Related forms:
bamboozlement, noun
bamboozler, noun

Word story

Bamboozle is one of those words that has been confounding etymologists for centuries. No one knows for sure what its origins are. One thing we do know is that it was originally considered “low language,” at least among such defenders of the language as British satirist Jonathan Swift, who hoped (and predicted) that it would quickly fade from the English lexicon.

The earliest meaning of bamboozle was “to deceive by trickery, hoodwink,” which is why some believe that it arose among the criminals of the underworld. One colorful, but unlikely, theory has it that bamboozle comes from bombazine, a kind of fabric that, dyed black, used to be worn for mourning. One has to imagine black-bombazine-wearing widows in the mid- to late 17th century bilking young gentlemen out of their purses.

By 1712, it had acquired the sense “to perplex; mystify.” It is not known for certain, but this sense might have emerged under the influence of the Scottish word bumbaze (or bombaze), meaning “to confuse,” similar in both sound and meaning. Given the befuddling qualities of alcohol, it’s not too surprising to find that, in the 1800’s, bamboozle showed up on college campuses as a slang term for “drunk.”
Far from slinking into obscurity, bamboozle today has left its lowly roots behind and found a secure place in the lexicon of standard English. Its very longevity stands as a reminder that you can’t predict or enforce the fate of a word.

Popular references

—Bamboozle: Milton Bradley produced two board games by this name. The first, introduced in 1876, was notable for featuring the first large folding game board. The second one, introduced in 1962, was based on an NBC show—McKeever and The Colonel.

—Bamboozle: The Parker Brothers (now Hasbro) produced a game by this name in 1997. It is a word game in which one team has to guess the words that another team came up with based on a list of randomly-generated letters.

—Bamboozled: A feature film (2000) directed by Spike Lee, about a frustrated African-American television writer who proposes a minstrel show as a form of protest, which unexpectedly becomes a hit.

—The Bamboozle: An annual three-day music festival held in New Jersey.

Related Quotations

“The best day for people of any age to trick and be tricked is April Fool’s Day, when we celebrate being bamboozled by harmless hoaxes. As Mark Twain said, ‘April 1 is the day on which we are reminded what we are on the other 364.” —Kathryn Lindskoog, Fakes, Frauds & Other Malarkey (1992)

“They’re counting on that you all forgot. They think that they can run the okey-doke on you. Bamboozle you.“  —Barack Obama, in a speech at a fundraiser in Atlanta, “Obama: Republicans want to ‘bamboozle’ voters this November“ Ballot Box (blog) reported by Sam Youngman (August 2, 2010)

“I’ll bambousle [sic] him, I’ll befogify his brain.“  —Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville (1838)

SOURCE: Dictionary.com (Unabridged)
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2016