BoJo bamboozled

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From Philip Taylor:

The British media were flooded yesterday with reports that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been “bamboozled” by scientific evidence presented during the Covid-19 pandemic.  My understanding of "bamboozle" has always been that deception must be involved, and this is borne out by the OED, but there was clearly no deception in this case (other than, perhaps, self-deception, in that BoJo may well have convinced himself that he did understand the scientific evidence, when he clearly did not), so why did Sir Patrick Valance, then Chief Scientific Advisor to HMG, record in his diary that “the Prime Minister was at times ‘bamboozled’” ?

In the past, just watching or listening to BoJo talk, I was almost always under the impression that he was bamboozled ("confused; frustrated; perplexed").  The primary definition of the word is "To con, defraud, trick, to make a fool of, to humbug or impose on someone".



Derivative of 17th-century vernacular bam (to trick, to con), which is a derivative of bam in noun use (fraudster, cheat). Possibly from French embobiner


"to cheat, trick, swindle," 1703, originally a slang or cant word, of unknown origin. Perhaps Scottish from bombaze, bumbaze "confound, perplex," or related to bombast, or related to French embabouiner "to make a fool (literally 'baboon') of." Wedgwood suggests Italian bambolo, bamboccio, bambocciolo "a young babe," extended by metonymy to mean "an old dotard or babish gull." Related: Bamboozled; bamboozler; bamboozling. As a noun from 1703.



Selected readings


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 5:19 pm

    Wiktionary recognizes a second sense of "bamboozle" as meaning "to confuse, frustrate or perplex" (in each case presumably without the malign deceptive intent thought to be part of the core sense of "bamboozle"). Perhaps significantly, the example it gives is a UK media one, a 2021 BBC Sport story on a soccer game between the national teams of Scotland and the Faroe Islands which states that the Scottish defense (defence?) was "bamboozled by a flurry of Faroese raids, at least one of which should have delivered a goal." I assume in context this does not mean actively deceptive play by the Faroese (I assume there's some soccer equivalent to the ice hockey stratagem of the, but just befuddlement on the part of the Scots.

    Consider also by way of parallel the title of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book "Fooled by Randomness." It's not unidiomatic to speak of someone having been "fooled" when the "fooler" in the situation is not a human moral agent who can be thought blameworthy. You can call it a form of self-deceit but that seems a bit of handwaving – it's just conceptual pareidolia, with the imperfect human mind thinking it sees a meaningful pattern that doesn't actually objectively exist in the external world. The source(s) of the misinterpreted sensory perceptions that are inaccurately perceived as meaning something they don't did not themselves have any malign intent. Taleb could maybe had titled his book "Bamboozled by Randomness" had we wanted a title in a somewhat different register.

  2. Adam said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 5:32 pm

    I definitely agree with there being two versions – a transitive version, in which one person is bamboozling another (strongly implying the intent is to con), and an intransitive verb, in which a person is simply bamboozled (extremely confused; believing incorrect things regardless of whether the source of the incorrect belief was a lie or not.)

  3. cameron said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 10:08 pm

    yeah, you can be bamboozled without there being a bamboozler acting with malicious intent. to assume there's always an agent is the beginning of conspiracy theory

  4. ktschwarz said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 4:32 pm

    The historical OED has not revised bamboozle since 1885, but even then they included the second definition as discussed in the previous comments, "To mystify, perplex, confound", which does not require an actively deceiving agent, although the two quotations do both involve one person bamboozling another person.

    The current Oxford dictionary (last printed in 2010 as Oxford Dictionary of English, and licensed to the iPhone and Google — it's what you get if you type "define bamboozle" into Google) has the second sense, and so does American Heritage and other current dictionaries, both US and UK. Merriam-Webster defines bamboozled as "thrown into a state of confusion or bewilderment especially by being deliberately fooled or misled", which I think is good: especially, but not always necessarily.

  5. AntC said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 8:57 pm

    @ktschwartz Merriam-Webster defines bamboozled as "thrown into a state of confusion …"

    And it's notable that Vallance's diary entry not only used the passive participle (with no evident agent), but also put it in scare quotes. Wiktionary has a quote

    He's completely bamboozled by the changes in the computer system.

    (And another from sports journalism, with an abstract 'by'-NP) with no suggestion of the deliberate "deception" @PT alleges.

  6. AntC said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 10:52 pm

    I wonder if @PT would have raised the issue if Valance had used 'bewildered', which both wiktionary and etymonline categorise as Adjective, though etymologically also a (passive) participle.

    'bamboozled' merely hasn't yet travelled so far along the etymological journey.

    IIRC, CGEL wishes to classify all such usages as Adj, and suggests this is an evolution away from Germanic that English has already completed. It's merely dictionary-compilers and those over-influenced by Latin grammar that want to classify as use of a verb. (Perhaps someone with access could check. I believe discussed before on LLog, probably by Geoff Pullum. Pro tem here's myl quoting CGEL p1436.)

    We could try the 'very' test:

    – The P.M. was at times very 'bewildered'. [works for me]

    – ?The P.M. was at times very 'bamboozled'. [marginal for me]

    BTW, Vallance is spelled with a double-ll. That helps a lot with Googling for usages: a) I can't find the exact phrase @PT quotes; b) I can't find the word appearing in scare quotes in the roughly-matching phrases. So my comment above is inaccurate. (It's in the newspaper headlines that it appears in scare quotes, and we know British headlines in particular are there to draw attention/not at all models of usage. That Guardian report includes an image of the diary entry.)

    So I find @PT not to be treating the evidence with sufficient scientific rigour.

  7. /df said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 10:47 am

    "I was almost always under the impression that [BJ] was bamboozled"

    It's said that his front is to appear so on the grounds that intellectuals are considered untrustworthy in British (at least, English) culture: "A man who's untrue to his wife", according to Auden's "man-in-the-street", which couldn't have been more accurate here. Whether BJ actually has the intellectual clout to require this front is another issue.

    The relevant diary extract quoted in the Daily Telegraph is this.
    “Late afternoon meeting with PM on schools. My God this is complicated and models will not provide the answer. PM is clearly bamboozled."

    As hinted by the word "complicated", everyone involved, scientists, civil servants and politicians, was in the dark. In particular, epidemiologists offered models that had been wrong in the past and turned out to be so again, and public health experts had based their understanding of airborne respiratory infections on invalid assumptions. Civil servants and politicians sceptical of, or just trying to interpret, the expert advice had to guess what to believe and how to react, not helped by a general lack of numeracy. Vallance may call people who didn't immediately acquiesce to his advice "bamboozled" but this is kettles and pots stuff. In the circumstances being perplexed was natural, and Vallance chose a rather partial and not fully accredited adjective to describe it.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 5:37 pm

    It is probably clear from the fact that I thought it worthwhile to report on this seemingly anomolous use of the word "bamboozled" that, in my experience at least, it is rarely if ever used without an element of deception being implied. It was therefore a complete surprise to encounter the word once again being used without any sense of deception in today’s BBC Inside Science. At approximately 20:28, the presenter, Marnie Chesterton, said (in the context of Ed Yong’s An Immense World) "It’s also a disconnect, it’s also slightly bamboozling, to think of the sheer quantity of senses that are out there that we just don’t have".

  9. Jason said,

    November 26, 2023 @ 11:00 pm

    Perhaps just a malapropism for "Discombobulated?"

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