Like last week’s word, stooge, bamboozle – to fool or cheat someone – is not quite what it appears to be. It has nothing to do with booze, whose origin is a Middle Dutch word meaning “to drink a lot.” Nor is it one of those flavorful 19th-century American slang words connoting fraud, like hornswoggle, humbug, and bunkum.
Bamboozle first appeared in England around 1700; the OED says it may have been a thieves’ cant word like fake and phony. Or it may come from a Scots word, bombaze, which is related to bombast and means “perplex.” Or – says the Online Etymology Dictionary – it may be related to the French word embabouiner: to make a fool (literally ‘baboon’) of.”
What we know for sure is that in the first decade of the 18th century, bamboozle was being deplored as one of those newfangled words the English language would be better off without. The Merriam-Webster entry for bamboozle includes this note:
In 1710, Irish author Jonathan Swift wrote an article on “the continual Corruption of our English Tongue” in which he complained of “the Choice of certain Words invented by some pretty Fellows.” Among the inventions Swift disliked were bamboozle, bubble (a dupe), put (a fool), and sham. (Perhaps he objected to the use of sham as a verb; he himself had used the adjective meaning “false” a couple of years previously.) What all these words appear to have in common is a connection to the underworld as jargon of criminals. Other than that, the origin of bamboozle remains a mystery, but the over-300-year-old word has clearly defied Swift's assertion that “All new affected Modes of Speech . . . are the first perishing Parts in any Language.”