The Etymology of “Bumfuzzled”

Note: Throughout this item, whenever the word “bumfuzzled” appears in italics, the italics are Chatterbox’s, not those of the source.

The lead story in today’s New York Times quotes Bill Clinton saying that the Republican budget passed yesterday by the House, which he intends to veto, “totally bumfuzzled” American voters on the question of whether Social Security funds would be tapped for current spending. Chatterbox doesn’t much care whether Social Security funds are tapped for current spending, but he knows the Republicans are making a big show of caring about that and therefore are being somewhat dishonest in pretending that they won’t. But what really interests Chatterbox is the president’s use of the word, bumfuzzled, which Chatterbox has never heard before.

Here is precisely what Clinton said (at an unrelated awards ceremony for “blue ribbon schools” at the Washington Hilton; interestingly, the transcription available on the White House Web site spells it “bum-fusseled,” which is incorrect; Chatterbox here uses the text supplied by the Federal News Service, which spelled bumfuzzled correctly):

[T]hey tried to say they weren’t spending the Social Security surplus–[chuckles]–and tried to blame us with wanting to, which is a miracle how they got that done. [Laughter.]

And–but you need to know–and when you go back home, people–I can imagine the American people must be totally bumfuzzled; keep announcing surpluses and we keep having budget fights. That’s what’s going on here.

Chatterbox at first felt sure that bumfuzzled was a coinage of Clinton’s, like (but more colorful than) Warren Harding’s coinage of “normalcy.” The meaning, Chatterbox suspected, had to do with an intimate act sometimes performed in the shower rooms of correctional facilities. In fact, though, it’s a real word. An Oct. 4 Time article about Jim Morris, a 35-year-old rookie for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, quotes a baseball scout saying he was “bumfuzzled” when he saw Morris’$2 98 mph fastball. And a Sept. 9 AP story quotes George Beason, a member of the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission, saying, “I’m just bumfuzzled” that the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., might be for sale.

Is bumfuzzled obscene? Authoritative sources suggest it isn’t. The American Heritage dictionary says that bumfuzzle, apparently used chiefly in the southern United States, means “to confuse,” and probably derives from some combination of “bamboozle,” “fuddle,” and “fuzzy.” The Random House Unabridged dictionary says the term first came into use around 1900 and agrees with the American Heritage hypothesis about its derivation. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged says bumfuzzle is an “alteration of English dialect, ‘dumfoozle’ and ‘dumfound.’ “

If there is an English link, it’s possible the link is somewhat racy. Tim Weiner, who wrote the Times piece, wonders whether bumfuzzled has at least some associative link to the British slang term bumf, a shortened version of “bumfodder,” or toilet paper. Bumf is defined in the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary as “toilet paper; worthless literature; (usually derog. documents, official papers).” Bumf would, of course, be an especially insulting way for Clinton to refer to the House Republicans’ budget, and it does seem plausible that Clinton encountered the word when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. (Weiner says he himself learned the term bumf from two friends who work at the Economist.) On reflection, though, this reading seems more entertaining than sound.

Chatterbox was curious to see how bumfuzzled was used in the traditional literature of the American South. To that end, Chatterbox searched the online collection at the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South and found two uses of the word. The first was in Northern Georgia Sketches, by Will Nathaniel Harben. Harben was apparently a protégé of Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus stories; Northern Georgia Sketches is dedicated to Harris, “in grateful acknowledgement of the kindly encouragement which made this book possible.” Here is how “bumfuzzled” appears in Harben’s book (which was published in 1900):

“Well, I’ll be liter’ly bumfuzzled!” he exclaimed. “Ef it ain’t John Ericson! I knowed yore company was in the fight last night, an’ I thought o’ you when I heerd the grape-shot a-plinkin’ out thar. But hang me, ef you don’t look sick ur half starved! Sally, give ‘im some’n’ t’ eat. They don’t feed the rebs much. Johnny, she’s been a-pinin’ fer you ever sence you enlisted, an’ last night durin’ the fight she mighty nigh went distracted. She - “

“Grandpa, that’s a lie!” cried the girl, fiercely; but there were pink spots in her cheeks as she retreated into the cabin and began to slam the pots and pans on the stone hearth.

The second reference to bumfuzzled was in History of the Life of Rev. Wm. Mack Lee, Body Servant of General Robert E. Lee Through the Civil War, published in 1918. The Rev. Lee, a black man, was Gen. Lee’s bodyguard and cook (and, one presumes, slave). The Rev. Lee’s book quotes at length a profile of himself that appeared in the Bedford, Va., Bulletin. It is here that the word bumfuzzled appears. Chatterbox will give the Rev. Lee (as quoted in the Bulletin’s profoundly politically incorrect account) the last word:

“The onliest time that Marse Robert ever scolded me,” said William Mack Lee, “in de whole fo’ years dat I followed him through the wah, was, down in de Wilderness–Seven Pines–near Richmond. I remembah dat day jes lak it was yestiday. Hit was July the third, 1863.

“Whilst we was in Petersburg, Marse Robert had done got him a little black hen from a man and we named the little black hen Nellie. She was a good hen, and laid mighty nar every day. We kep’ her in de ambulants, whar she had her nest. … On dat day–July the third–we was all so hongry and I didn’t have nuffin in ter cook, dat I was jes’ plumb bumfuzzled. I didn’t know what to do. Marse Robert, he had gone and invited a crowd of ginerals to eat wid him, an’ I had ter git de vittles. Dar was Marse Stonewall Jackson, and Marse A. P. Hill, and Marse D. H. Hill, and Marse Wade Hampton, Gineral Longstreet, and Gineral Pickett and sum others.

“I had done made some flanel cakes, a little tea, and some lemonade, but I ‘lowed as how dat would not be enuff fo’ dem gemm’n. So I had to go out to de ambulants and cotch de little black hen, Nellie.

There was a tear in William Mack Lee’s voice, but in his eye I fancied that I saw the happy light that always dances in the eyes of his race at the thought of a fowl for cooking.

“I jes’ had to go out and cotch little Nellie. I picked her good, and stuffed her with breod stuffin, mixed wid butter. Nellie had been gwine wid us two years, and I hated fer to lose her. We had been gettin’ all our eggs from Nellie.

“Well, sir, when I brung Nellie inter de commissary tent and set her fo’ Marse Robert he turned to me right fo’ all dem gimmin and he says: ‘William, now you have killed Nellie. What are we going to do for eggs?”

” ‘I jes’ had ter do it, Marse Robert.’ says I.

’No, you didn’t William; I’m going to write Miss Mary about you. I’m going to tell her you have killed Nellie.’

“Marse Robert kep’ on scoldin’ me mout dat hen. He never scolded ‘bout naything else. He tol’ me I was a fool to kill de her whut lay de golden egg. Hit made Marse Robert awful sad ter think of anything bein’ killed, whedder der ‘twas one of his soljers, or his little black hen.”