The word sounds like a barroom brawl: Bam! Booze! All! But that’s part of the con because we’re talking about bamboozle, which means pure trickery or flimflammery.
The word shows up in England at the turn of the 18th century around the same time as the window tax – one of those not so transparent laws enacted by government officials to increase revenue, which turns out to be a pain for the taxpayer.
At the time, the British people considered one’s annual income as personal and private as the number of one’s underpants and certainly none of the king’s concern. The only way for the king to get a peek at how much money people had was to empower the taxmen to become peeping Toms and report on the number of windows each dwelling had. More windows meant larger dwellings, meant people had more money, meant more tax revenue. To reduce their tax burden, people stonewalled the king by boarding and bricking up some of their windows. Darkening their dwellings seemed preferable to the government lightening their wallets.
Oddly (at least to me) in 1694 two years before the window tax, An Act for the More Effectual Suppressing of Profane Swearing and Cursing passed, enacting fines on swearers and cursers everywhere. Without any historical evidence to back me up, I think the lawmakers were acting preemptively since they must have known the response the window tax would elicit.
But back to the word that started this post.
No one knows exactly where the word bamboozle comes from. Its first written appearance is in a comedy performed in 1703, so it must have been used on the streets of London sometime before that.
In 1710 Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a protest in the Tatler, a literary journal for gentlemen, lamenting what he perceived as the corruption of the English language, evidenced by “pretty Fellows” using only the first syllable of a word and leaving out the rest, omitting vowels, and inventing words like bamboozle. Swift claimed this “natural Tendency towards relapsing into Barbarity” would not end well for the words of the English language and says, “I am sure no other Nation will desire to borrow them.”
Swift is not the first language lamenter to be bamboozled by history. For several centuries now, English has been borrowed, taken home and let loose to swim in the Caribbean, play ice hockey, sport tattoos, ride elephants, wear a headdress, and dance the bomba — all before breakfast. It spends the rest of the day roaming the world, mingling with a thousand other languages, and borrowing a few words of its own.
English itself is a trickster, an ever-changing shape-shifter, untamable, as full of surprises as it is of annoyances (like like as a reporting verb), yet ever my own ears’ delight.
Bamboozle has never enjoyed the kind of popularity its close cousin cozen had in the early 1800s, but there’s something I love about those two pops of b’s exploding from my lips, ending with z’s flow of turbulent air suddenly blocked by the letter l and the tip of my tongue, as if to say, “Hold on there a minute. Where are you going, and what are you up to?”
And the answer? Spending the morning boarding up windows with the common folk, and the afternoon counting windows for the government.