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.

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

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The downs and ups of “bounce”

Last post, I looked into the history of keynotea word getting a lot of airplay during the US party conventions. Another word basking in the lexical limelight right now is bounce, that post-convention boost in the polls each candidate historically enjoys. Where did this bounce etymologically spring from?

Bounce’s bouncy past 

Outside of its polling sense today, bounce suggests a liveliness and springiness: the bounce of a ball or the bounce in one’s step. But originally, bounce was the very opposite. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the verb bounce as early as 1225. Back then, bounce took the form bunsen and meant “to beat” or “thump.” 

Come the 16th century, bounce starting bouncing in all sorts of a semantic directions. We have bounce, “to make a loud explosive noise.” We have bounce “to talk big,” “to bluster,” and “to bully.” We have the more familiar bounce “to bound like a ball,” initially said of heavier objects. 

What’s the connecting sense here? Sound. With some possible connections in Dutch and German, bounce likely originates in imitation of loud, sudden noises or movements – like that original “beat” or “thump.” This is why we even see bounce historically used as an interjection to imitate the loud bang of a gun: Bounce!

Bouncing balls bound. Are the words related? Not directly, but they share similar sense developments and imitative roots. Bound “to leap upward” – is found in the late 16th century and probably influenced bounce’s form and sense during that time. This bound comes from the French bondir, which meant, like bounce, “to make a resounding noise.” The verb seems to derive from the Latin bombus, a “buzzing, booming, or humming noise.” Bombus also gives English another noisy word: bomb

From “thump” to “jump”

The sound of a bounce inspired the motion of a bounce: a ball makes a sudden thump as it smacks the ground before bouncing into the air. English made good use of all its metaphorical energy. A drunk could get bounced – tossed out – of a bar by the bouncer. The OED cites this bouncer, a “chucker-out,” as an Americanism dating back to at least 1865. A few decades earlier, a bouncer also named a “swaggering liar.” And this ejective usage seems to anticipate a later slang usage, Let’s bounce, or “Let’s get out of here.” 

Another Americanism (1920s) is a rubber check, which would bounce right back to the bank due to insufficient funds. Sixty years later, emails were bouncing back in a similar, figurative manner.  A bounce also refers to a sudden rise in a price – or, for our purposes here, a candidate’s standing. The OED first finds the financial sense in the 1970s. It documents the political bounce in 1980, referring to Jimmy Carter’s “post-convention bounce,” the precise context pollsters and pundits are using it now during this stretch of the presidential campaign. 

Bounce’s colorful – or better yet, noisy – etymological past is instructive for its political present. Polling bounces can lead candidates to “boast.” They can also make their opponents sting from the “thumping.” And so we should be careful not to make too much bounce about them. For these post-convention bounces – like so much of politics – are like balls: what goes up comes back down. And that’s just the way the ball bounces. 

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