The baffling origins of “baffle”

Today’s etymology comes by special request—or rather, acute observation—of Barbara, a loyal reader I had the great pleasure to meet in Ireland this week. Baffle came up in casual conversation and she, owing in no small part to her wise and inspiring 89 years as an educator and intellect, wondered, as we word nerds always do: Where does the word baffle come from?

Well, Barbara, the origin of baffle is quite…baffling.

marley27s_ghost-john_leech2c_1843
Bah, humbug! Could Scrooge be the clue to the origin of baffle? (Wikimedia Commons)

Of Knights and Noise

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds baffle in Edward Hall’s 1548 Chronicle, which traces the history of the houses of York and Lancaster from Henry IV to Henry VIII. For Hall, baffle meant “to disgrace publicly,” used especially of perjured knights. As he writes in his chapter on Henry VIII:

He was content, that the Scottes shoulde Baffull hym, whiche is a great reproache amonge the Scottes, and is vsed when a man is openly periured, and then they make of hym an Image paynted reuersed, with hys heles vpwarde, with hys name, wonderyng cryenge and blowing out of hym with hornes.

This usage has lead some etymologists to suspect baffle is a variation or corruption of the Scottish bauchle, “to subject to disgrace.” This verb is possibly based on the adjective bauch, “weak, poor, abashed, tasteless,” which might come from the Old Norse bágr, “uneasy, poor” or bagr, “awkward, clumsy.”

Near the end of the 1500s, though, a different sense of baffle emerges: “to cheat, bewilder, foil,” from which the modern meaning (i.e., perplex, thwart) settles in by 1670s. The verb, in its “forestalling” sense, yields the noun baffler/baffle in the mid-to-late 1800s, referring to various kinds of shielding devices (e.g., a sound baffle).

This baffle has directed etymologists to the Old French beffler (deceive, mock) and bafouer (deceive, abuse, hoodwink, etc.), two forms that might arise from beffe, “mockery.” And beffe? Perhaps Old French owes this to our good, ole etymological friend, onomatopoeia: Baf!, an interjection of disgust along the lines of Bah! or Pooh! Maybe the Scots bauchle and French bafouer are related—or maybe they aren’t and just got confused.

Etymology, yes, can be so baffling, but baf! Sometimes it can also just be so simple. 

Thanks very much for the suggestion, Barbara. If you ever have a suggestion or if a certain word ever tickles your curiosity, drop me a line at mashedradish@gmail.com.

m ∫ r ∫

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3 thoughts on “The baffling origins of “baffle”

  1. John, the pleasure was all mine. It was great to meet you and to see your dad again. Now that you have dubbed me an intellect, I must delve into the comedies. The Dickensian illustration tells me your memory is much sharper than mine. Hope we can stay in touch.
    Barbara

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    1. If I were to take any Shakespeare to a desert island, it would certainly but a tragedy, but I definitely found in my year reading the Complete Works that the comedies were exceptionally rewarding. For what it’s worth, I often myself thinking of contemporary prestige TV dramas (say, on HBO) as the Dickens of our time, though I’m criminally under-read in Dickens myself.

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