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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Running up to the election, it’s all about the political polls. On election day, it’s about who shows up to the polls. Leaving the polls, we take exit polls. The following morning, we analyze the polls. All these polls are enough to make us lose our…polls?

"Tadpole." Doodle by me.
“Tadpole.” Doodle by me.


In Old English, a poll referred to the head, especially the top of the head of persons or animals where hair grows. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this usage as early as 1300, although it does note, with a terrifying ambiguity, a reference to an obscure “kind of penal instrument of restraint.”

Over the ensuing decades, the sense of poll was transferred from the “top of the head” to the whole person, particularly as would be tallied in, say, a headcount–a count “by poll.” In 1625, the OED attests poll as the “counting of voters” for voice votes or by show of hands. We witness further transference to the “result of voting” with a citation in the New York Weekly Journal in October, 1736:

The Polls were so near, that a Scrutiny was demanded and had.

Later in the century, polls began to signify where votes were cast. It’s not until 1902 that polls named opinion surveys.

Surveying the “Poll”

So, poll-sick or poll-mad by election day? Blame the Dutch.

Our best guest as the origin of poll is evidenced by the Middle Dutch pol, meaning “top” or “summit,” with other Germanic cognates like Middle Low German’s pollfor the “top” of plants. English may have borrowed the word or it may have developed in line, perhaps like the Swedish pull or Danish puld for “crown of the head,” as Skeat provides.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds that poll in Old English lives on in place names, possibly meaning “hill,” and thus the original may have been “hill.”

Ernest Klein and Eric Partridge hold out for a connection to the Latin bulla, “bubble,” connected to the rather prolific (and likely imitative) Proto-Indo-European roots for “to swell,” like *bhel-, which we saw before in Super Bowl and fool.


We count some “heads” in a few other surprising places. The poleax is a weapon with an ax on its poll, or head, though the unrelated pole is certainly an influence. Heads roll in a pollard, a tree whose tops have been pruned. Earlier, the word referred to deers that have cast their antlers, the OED notes.

Poll was also a verb, as pollard may have suggested, in case you recognize polled. Originally, it referred to cutting off hair; later, heads.

But what really turns my head is tadpole. This word is hatched from toad and poll, a “toad-head,” due to its top-heavy development. In some regions, it is known, delightfully enough, as a pollywog, joining that same poll with wiggle.

The connection couldn’t be better: The 2016 campaign for US President kicks off today, for all intents and purposes, and we will all soon squirm with polls like so many tadpoles in yet another political life cycle.

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