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.

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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.

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What is so “rupt” about “bankrupt”?

Toys “R” Us, the world’s largest toy store chain, filed for bankruptcy protections today. Debt and online shopping aren’t great for playtime, it turns out—but etymology certainly is. This post, let’s have a quick look at the origins of bankrupt.

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“Bankrupt”: literally breaking the bank. (Pixabay)

Bankrupt: trading in metaphors

Borrowed into English from French, bankrupt comes from the Italian phrase banca rotta, or banco rotto in the masculine, literally a “broken bench.”

The bench here refers to a market stall where merchants would count and exchange money, and it’s said that, once upon a time, people would break up their stalls if they had become insolvent. The Italian phrase itself, though, may have actually just started out as a figurative expression.

The Italian banco goes back to a Germanic root, with some basic meaning of “table,” that also gives English the word bench and is connected to the geological bank in, say, sandbank. First used as a table for counting and exchanging money, bank was metaphorically extended to the financial institutions we call banks today.

Rotto, meanwhile, goes back to the Latin rumpere, “to break” or “burst.” The Latin verb’s past participial form is ruptus, which we can see in other derivatives like abrupt, corrupt, interrupt, erupt, and rupture. This form also helps explains English spelling of bankrupt, as well as its French intermediary, bancque roupte.

As for when bankrupt entered the language, the Oxford English Dictionary finds a bankrupt (insolvent person) in 1533, to bankrupt in 1552, and bankrupt as an adjective in 1565. Various figurative extensions of bankrupt (e.g., a person bankrupt of honor) are found shortly thereafter. Bankruptcy emerges just a little later in the 1630s—or some nearly 400 years if you’re Toys “R” Us.

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The etymological folds of “diplomacy”

With North Korea accelerating its nuclear weaponry and the threat of US military action looming, diplomacy feels more urgent than ever. Etymology may be wishful thinking, but let’s examine the origins of the diplomacy—so we won’t be as extinct as the diplodocus.

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Double plates used for military diplomas in ancient Rome (Brigham Young University)

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Search: etymology of the day

Via Old French cerchier, search goes back to the Latin circare, literally “to go round.” The verb is formed from circus, source of and meaning circle.

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(Pixabay)

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“Torrential”: a cruelly ironic etymology

There’s only one way to describe the rain deluging Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this week: torrential. Nearly thirty inches have already fallen over parts of the city as of Monday night, and 20 more inches are still expected.

The frequent co-occurrence of these two words, torrential and rain, is called collocation by linguists, and we’ve seen it before in my post on rampant, which is so often coupled with corruption. We’re also seeing collocation at work in Houston’s catastrophic flooding.

But how about the word torrential itself? Where does it come from?

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Torrential is like a torrent, originally said of streams. (Pixabay)

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The etymological elements of “arsenic”

Researchers concluded this week that nearly 60 million people in Pakistan are at risk of drinking water with “alarmingly high” levels of arsenic, the contamination leaching into groundwater from rock.

The poisonous qualities of arsenic, a semi-metal, and its various compounds have long been known to (and sometimes disregarded by) humans—as has the word. As we work to ensure clean water for Pakistan, let’s look into the etymology of arsenic.

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Orpiment, the historic arsenic, glittering on quartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Hamper: Etymology of the day

A laundry hamper, first attested in 1392, is shortened from hanaper, a case for a hanap, an old term for a precious goblet or drinking vessel. Its deeper roots are French and Frankish. The verb hamper, “to impede,” is apparently unrelated.

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It’s a long way from dirty socks. (Steve Hannaford)

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Gopher: Etymology of the day

While ultimately obscure, some think gopher, first attested in the early 1800s, comes from the Louisiana French gaufre, “honeycomb” or “waffle,” describing the structure of their burrows. Gaufre may in turn be from a Frankish word related to the Dutch wafel, source of waffle

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Some etymological—and political—lessons of “condemn”

The word condemn is surprisingly related to the Irish word for “poem.” 

White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, leading to the death of three people, including Heather Heyer, a counter-protester driven down by an Ohio terrorist with neo-Nazi sympathies. It took President Trump a woeful two days to directly condemn this violence and hate—and even then, his “strongest possible terms” left many wanting. In the wake of these horrid events, today’s post will focus on the origin of the word condemn.

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Condemn, as in to “declare a building unfit for use,” first appears in the 18th century. (Pixabay

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Nuance: Etymology of the day

The word nuance, first attested in the 1780s, comes from the French for “shade of color,” which in turn goes back to the Latin nubes, “cloud, mist, vapor.”

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Clouds can have a nuanced beauty. (Pixabay)

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