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Bumbling About

Dr Hopper is described on two occasions in the diary as 'a bumbling buffoon'.   It transpires, after an astute Casebook Forum poster called 'The Baron' pointed it out, that the concept of someone being described as a bumbling [anything] in a derogatory sense is exclusively twentieth century.

One simply doesn't seem to find mentions of a 'bumbling fool' or 'bumbling idiot' in the nineteenth century, nor 'bumbling buffoon'.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that an 1886 book by Eliza Lynn Linton, a writer from the North Country, entitled Paston Carew, Millionaire and Miser, contains a reference to a rector's son as 'a big bumbling young fellow'  (being the first nineteenth century example of this expression provided by the dictionary) but that doesn't sound terribly insulting and is surely not the same as calling someone a bumbling fool or idiot. The full quote from the book is that the guy in question, named Frank Harcourt, is 'a big bumbling young fellow with lint-white hair, a skin that tanned red, and as awkward as a mastiff puppy or nestling cuckoo'. To me that gives the impression of clumsiness or awkwardness, and indeed we see the expression 'as awkward as a mastiff puppy' as opposed to bungling incompetence. 

Linton had actually used the expression 'bumbling fellow' in a novel called Lizzie Lorton of Greyrigg a full twenty years earlier in similar fashion to describe a parson.  In the same book, another character looked at his own 'trim, slight, well-knit figure' and said that he was 'by no means of the "bumbling" order' which doesn't seem to make much sense if 'bumbling' was being used as we would understand it today.  It is true, however, that 'bumbling' was a North Country dialect word for 'bungling', and Linton was from the North Country, so perhaps she did mean it in that way.

According to the online etymology dictionary, 'bumbling' only came to mean 'confused, blundering, awkward' in 1886 and that is presumably on the basis of Linton's use of the word in her book of that year. As I've mentioned, however, it was a North Country dialect word for some years prior to this (and it was a Scottish dialect word with the same meaning, but with a different spelling).  Nevertheless, it would appear to be the case that 'bumbling' wasn't a word actually used to mean 'blundering' or 'incompetent' in the English language, as generally spoken, during the nineteenth century.  It doesn't appear in a number of dictionaries of the period (including in the early twentieth century) and, although it is given that meaning in one dictionary published in 1888, it is said to have been obsolete (other than for certain regional dialects), and the evidence of actual usage suggests that it was generally regarded as such.   

I set out at the end of this article what I've discovered about the etymology of 'blundering' including the evidence that it was North Country (and Scottish) dialect.  But a historical discussion in the abstract only takes us so far. In order to test the theory that 'bumbling' did not exist as a word in the English language at the relevant time, other than in respect of the sound of a bumble bee, I entered (in September 2020) as many expressions relating to 'bumbling' as I could think of into three databases which all go back to the eighteenth century (the British Newspaper Archive, The Times Digital Archive and Google Books) including as many occupations I could think of, because to put blundering before an occupation is to be derogatory of it, or rather of that person.  The results were absolutely startling. Everything that I entered came back as twentieth century without exception. Although we get a 'bumbling fool' from a 1909 book ('Why, God stiffen it you bumbling fool!') this would seem to be the absolute earliest of such usage.  Here is the list of search terms I entered with their earliest date from the three databases in parentheses:

Bumbling fool (1909)  

Bumbling old [something] (1931) - we do find 'dear rumbling, bumbling old automobiles' in a 1903 book but I think that the 'bumbling' there is probably related to the humming of the engine, like a bumble bee or bittern, which is another definition of the word. 

Bumbling mayor (1933) 

Bumbling sheriff (1933) 

Bumbling Englishman (1935) 

Bumbling minister (1936) 

Bumbling politician (1937)

Bumbling colonel (1938)

Bumbling man (1938) - there is a 1926 reference to a high priest as 'a genial, bumbling man with a blue twinkle in his eye' but I'm not convinced that the meaning of 'bumbling' here is related to bungling incompetence due to the context. 

Bumbling American (1938) 

Bumbling police (1941)  

Bumbling doctor (1943) 

Bumbling admiral (1945) 

Bumbling detective (1949) 

Bumbling scientist (1949) 

Bumbling professor (1950) 

Bumbling barrister (1950) 

Bumbling sidekick (1951)

Bumbling person (1951) 

Bumbling sergeant (1952) 

Bumbling friend (1953) 

Bumbling major (1953) 

Bumbling vicar (1953) 

Bumbling captain (1953) 

Bumbling idiot (1954) - although the O.E.D. gives an example from 1948 in a Texas newspaper being: 'a bumbling idiot of a policeman'

Bumbling villain (1954) 

Bumbling policeman (1954) 

Bumbling engineer (1954) 

Bumbling deputy (1957) 

Bumbling lawyer (1958) 

Bumbling inspector (1960) 

Bumbling novice (1960) 

Bumbling clown (1961) 

Bumbling solicitor (1961) 

Bumbling incompetent (1961)

Bumbling simpleton (1962)

Bumbling nurse (1963)

Bumbling teacher (1963) 

Bumbling aristocrat (1964) 

Bumbling assistant (1966)

Bumbling accountant (1966) 

Bumbling half-wit (1967)

Bumbling enemy (1967) 

Bumbling lieutenant (1967) 

Bumbling dentist (1969) 

Bumbling artist (1969) 

Bumbling manager (1969) 

Bumbling chaplain (1970) 

Bumbling constable (1971) 

Bumbling actor (1972) - although in a 1916 autobiography the author describes himself as having been 'a bumbling actor bee buzzing around' which must be related to the bumbling of a bee. 

Bumbling associate (1972) 

Bumbling criminal (1974) - although there is a 1946 reference to 'bumbling criminal incompetence' but 1974 is the first reference to a person as a bumbling criminal. 

Bumbling MP (1975) 

Bumbling twit (1980) 

Bumbling woman (1983) - there is a 1904 result from Harper's magazine (reader's letter) which says that, 'men should be aware of what I call the “bumbling” woman – the respectable woman past her youth, who has never had her share of attention and appreciation, and who by appealing for sympathy or advice, or by cultivating his tastes and by the most subtle arts of flattery, almost imperceptibly draws a man into confidential relations, and sometimes makes him think he loves her. Even if the “bumbling” woman does not go so far, the man’s wife sees what is going on; she knows her women friends see it, and she is miserable with a misery she is almost powerless to combat.  There should be a special place of torment prepared for the woman who “bumbles” about a married man.'    Clearly, ‘bumble’ here isn’t the same as the modern understanding and the fact that the writer of the letter chose the phrase ‘bumbling women’ with this definition shows to me that the word ‘bumbling’ was not in common use (in America) at the time to describe an incompetent person. 

Anyone can play this game and enter as many other 'bumbling' occupations or expressions as you can think of.  I'm confident they will ALL come back from the twentieth century.  I also tested a selection on and a few other databases, such as Gale, with the same results.

Update July 2024:  I refreshed the above searches, and carried out new searches on, from which I managed to push some back by a few years (mainly from American sources) so that Bumbling old [something] now goes back to 1912 ("bumbling old man"), Bumbling sergeant, Bumbling colonel, Bumbling Clown to 1936, Bumbling friend, Bumbling official(s), Bumbling half-wit to 1938, Bumbling amateur, Bumbling minister(s), to 1939, Bumbling Major, Bumbling idiot, Bumbling lawyer to 1940, Bumbling assistant to 1941, Bumbling captain to 1946,  Bumbling lieutenant (actually Bumbling lieutenant-governor) to 1947,  Bumbling manager to 1948, Bumbling constable to 1949, Bumbling inspector to 1950, Bumbling teacher, Bumbling artist to 1951, Bumbling policeman, Bumbling lawyer to 1953, Bumbling simpleton to 1957, Bumbling woman to 1958, Bumbling enemy to 1959,  Bumbling chaplain to 1961, Bumbling actor to 1966, Bumbling chaplain to 1969 and Bumbling criminal to 1974.  

Now that's one thing.  But what was really amazing was what happened when I entered those same expressions into the British Newspaper Archive except with the word 'bumbling' replaced by 'blundering' or 'bungling' .  I found that almost without exception they came back with plenty of examples from the nineteenth century!  Where I couldn't find a single 'bumbling' expression from that century for love nor money, now I was overwhelmed by them when using 'blundering' or 'bungling'.  In fact, the only ones I couldn't find in the nineteenth century from the BNA for 'blundering' were: sidekick, chaplain, vicar twit and halfwit (although we do find 'blundering,  halfwitted people' in 1859) and, for 'bungling': sidekick, major, deputy, mayor, halfwit, American, chaplain and aristocrat.  I suspect I could have found nineteenth century examples for at least some of these in Google Books but I didn't bother, for there was no need.

The earliest BNA result for 'blundering idiot' was 1823 and for 'bungling idiot' was 1841.  For 'blundering fool' this went back to 1808 and 'bungling fool' went back to 1836.  I checked these two expressions in Google Books and not only were there plenty of examples but they went back to 1828 for 'blundering idiot' and 1810 for 'blundering fool' and 1870 for 'blundering idiot' and 1838 for 'blundering fool'.

I won't list them all from the BNA but it's worth noting that some of them went back to the eighteenth century such as 'bungling politician' (1740), 'bungling engineer' (1750) and 'bungling admiral' (1756) while we also have 'blundering mayor' (1778) and 'blundering politician' (1764).  A large number of the rest of the expressions from the nineteenth century could be found in the early part of the century such as 'blundering lawyer' (1802), 'blundering friend' (1807), 'blundering person' (1818), 'bungling lawyer' (1818), 'bungling dentist' (1823), 'bungling doctor' (1825) 'blundering clown' (1825) and 'blundering aristocrat' (1828).  You can try it yourself.  The difference between these results and the results for 'bumbling' people is absolutely extraordinary and not only supports but, in my opinion, proves the theory I set out at the start.

You can even do the same with 'blustering' as we find the earliest mention of 'blustering idiot' being 1835 in the BNA and 1862 in Google Books.  For 'blustering fool', this can be found in 1829 in the BNA and 1808 in Google books. 

In terms of buffoons, we find 'blustering buffoon' from 1826 in the BNA and 1848 in Google Books.  There seems to be a mention of a 'blundering buffoon' in the BNA from 1818 and in Google Books from 1833.  For 'bungling buffoon' we have an example for 1854 in Google Books and the only real anomaly is that the BNA's first example is not until 1936.  

But that's really by the by.  People simply did not use the word 'bumbling' in the nineteenth century to describe someone as blundering or incompetent. It just wasn't in general usage.  While it was used by one writer in 1909, it evidently took time to filter its way into the general English language.  It wasn't a particularly necessary word with both 'blundering' and 'bungling' (and, of course, also 'blustering') already available.  We can see that it picked up in popularity during the 1930s before coming into general use in the 1940s and 1950s which is exactly when we find the first use of 'bumbling buffoon'.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery of my searches was in respect of Dogberry, a constable in Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing'.  Most modern books refer to him as 'the bumbling Dogberry' and Google books gives us 1954 as the earliest appearance of this expression. However, while we don't find any such description in the nineteenth century, the BNA gives us a result from 1842 for 'blundering Dogberry' while the notes to the play from 1806 in Google Books also give us 'The blundering Dogberry'.  It's a good example of how the word 'bumbling' came to replace 'blundering' as a word of choice during the twentieth century, having not been available to writers during the nineteenth century.  

On the basis of the results of my searches, I think The Baron must be right when he said, 'I will take this phrase Bumbling Buffoon any day in the week as a proof that the Diary is a fake'.  Diary Defenders who wish to show that the diary was created during the nineteenth century really do need to provide an example of someone in that century referring to a bumbling buffoon or similar.  

And they also need to find an example of 'one off instance' or similar but I'm afraid that will be impossible.

In response to the 'bumbling buffoon' discovery, Caroline Morris-Brown (in #107 of the google ngrams thread on Casebook) was reduced to suggesting that a nineteenth century hoaxer of the diary possibly just happened to invent the expression 'bumbling buffoon' about sixty years before anyone else used it by comparing Hopper (who he thought of as a buffoon) to a bee and imagined him bumbling around, thus creating his own expression of 'bumbling buffoon'.  It is, of course, a ludicrous suggestion to anyone who gives it any thought and who compares it to actual usage of the expression, or rather non-usage, in the nineteenth century.

I should just add that anyone who wishes to respond to this article or to do searches of their own.  Please don't make a muppet of yourself by confusing 'humbling' or 'tumbling' with 'bumbling' in any search results and check the date of any result in Google Books is correct (which you can usually do by searching the word 'copyright' to give you the correct date of publication) and also beware of the Laredo Times on which produces false results said to be from the 1890s of twentieth century editions.

As an aside, we may note that popularity of the bumbling buffoon in cinema and on TV in the UK in the post-war period has been huge.

It starts, I think, with Nigel Bruce's portrayal of Dr Watson opposite Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in a series of films produced between 1939 and 1946.  He may not have been described as a bumbling buffoon during that period (bearing in mind that the earliest known example found in print so far is from 1948) but, when he died in 1953, Time magazine referred to him as being 'best known for his characterizations of Sherlock Holmes's bumbling friend, Dr Watson'.  Leslie Halliwell's 1977 'The Filmgoer's Companion' says that he was 'Hollywood's most bumbling import from Britain' who 'usually played well-meaning upper class buffoons' while The Sherlock Holmes Journal published in 1982 says of Bruce that he 'did play him as the bumbling buffoon, and yet made a success of it'. Similarly the Times of 28 July 1984 says of Bruce that he 'played Watson as a rather dim, bumbling buffoon'.  So whether or not Bruce's Watson was commonly referred to as a bumbling buffoon in the 1940s (or 1950s, 1960s or 1970s) he certainly was in the 1980s!     

Another personification of the bumbling buffoon was, of course, Peter Sellars as Inspector Clouseau although you will usually find reference to him as a 'bumbling detective' or 'bumbling inspector'.  The Times of 28 January 1965, for example, referred to the 'bumbling Inspector Clouseau'.   The Liverpool Echo of 12 February 1965 likewise called him 'the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the Paris Surete'.  In the 1975 Film Review Digest Annual, Clouseau is said to be 'too entirely the buffoon'.  The 1980 TV Guide refers to 'the immortal Inspector Clouseau, master bumbler and buffoon'.  In the Times of 26 February 1985 he is described as 'the bumbling French detective'.  On 25 April 1986, the Times said of the FBI agent, Ronald Miller, charged with passing secret documents to the Russians, that his defence team 'portrayed him as a bumbling buffoon, "an overweight Inspector Clouseau who took on Bondian fantasies in order to salvage his reputation"'.   This is another example of how common the expression of bumbling buffoon was in the 1980s.

Another character in the 1980s described as a 'bumbling buffoon' was Ade Edmonson's Guy Fuddle in the 1985 BBC TV comedy series 'Happy Families' (e.g. Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush Gazette of 11 October 1985, Reading Evening Post of 24 October 1985 and Derby Daily Telegraph of 7 June 1988).

So it was a perfectly common, well known and well understood expression in the UK during the 1980s (but most certainly NOT in the 1880s!!!).   It's funny, though, because when I first posted about 'one off instance' back in 2016, Caroline Morris-Brown made exactly the same ludicrous suggestion that it wasn't a common expression during the 1980s!  She is absolutely terrified of anything linking the diary to the Barretts!!  It's extraordinary, and to avoid the authorship of the diary pointing to the Barretts through the use of expressions which were very common in the 1980s, such as 'one off instance' and 'bumbling buffoon', she tries to twist and deny reality to pretend they were obscure phrases that Mike and Anne wouldn't have heard of. 


I said earlier that I would set out the detailed etymology of the word 'bumbling'.


The O.E.D. defines a ‘bumbling’ person as one who moves in an awkward or confused manner often prone to making careless mistakes being ineffectual and/or incompetent.  But when did that meaning really start to be recognised by the public? 

The O.E.D. takes the word 'bumbling' back to 1533.  Thomas More wrote:

‘Tyndall dydde yet at lastwyse make some bumlying aboute a colour for the matter with a long processe of historicall faith and feelynge faith’. 

The meaning isn't entirely clear but whatever it means it's clear that Tindall made some bumbling.  He wasn't being described as a bumbling person. 

Another 1533 quote from Thomas More is:

'The thynge where about he hath bombled all this whyle'.

I don't know why there's a different spelling by the same person in the same year but someone has evidently bumbled about something.  Again, they are not themselves bumbling.

Another sixteenth century example is from 1540: 'Ye fare lyke hym that tumble For nought ye do but bumble'.


Again the meaning isn't clear but it's a case of bumbling being done, not someone being bumbling.

Then we have an example from 1660 but that's said to be in respect of making reference to confused or incompetent exegesis of scripture. Hence: ‘many bumbling Volumes, larger than the Bible itself being written’.  Again, this is very different to the concept of an incompetent or bumbling person. 

In 1713, Henry Carey wrote a poem entitled 'The Disparity of Youth and Age' as follows:

What should a merry, airy, lively, youthful, blooming lass
Do with a mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, stumbling, fumbling ass?
Youth and age but ill agree
Such a man's no match for me;
Coughing, spitting,
Thwarting, twitting,
Ever teasing,
Never pleasing;
Hang his money, hang his bags,
Give me youth, content and rags. 

If, as seems to be the case (although I'm guessing somewhat), Carey was referring to a young woman in a relationship with an older man (who was the 'ass') it's possible that one could strip this down and say that Carey is here referring to a man as 'a bumbling ass' and this could thus be said to have been a derogatory use of 'bumbling'.

The problem, as I see it, is that it's not entirely clear what Carey means by 'bumbling'.  There was another meaning of the word going back to Chaucer in the fifteenth century in which a bittern 'bombleth in the myre' and was the booming sound made by the bittern.  Also in the fifteenth century we find reference to 'The bomelying of the bees' and, in 1556, in reference to flies, 'Much bumbling among them all there was'.  In 1609, Ravenscroft wrote.  'We shall have good companie. With humbling and bumbling and much melody.  When ended this wedding day the Bee he tooke his flye away'.  In 1689, Hogarth wrote, 'To bumble, or humble like Bees' while in 1693 there is an example of 'Bumling of bees'.  Bumbling thus also became known as the sound made by a bee.  So while Carey might have been referring to an 'ass' who moved or behaved in an awkward or confused manner, he might also have been talking about the mumbling, bumbling, grumbling sounds made by the man.  Even if that's wrong, and the O.E.D. certainly seems to think he was referring to awkwardness, it seems to have been an isolated use of the word 'bumbling' in a vaguely derogatory way about an individual.

In 1808, Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language includes the word 'Bummil', 'Bummle' or 'Bombell' to mean 'a drone, an idle fellow'.  It also includes 'To Bummil' which is to bungle or blunder while a 'Bummeler' or 'Bumler' was defined as a 'blundering fellow'.  Despite the examples that we've already seen of 'bumbling'  in the English language there is no entry for 'bumble' and, when we look at this poem from 1786 by Robert Burns, entitled 'On a Scotch Bard, Gone to the West Indies'), it would seem clear that 'bumble' (as opposed to 'bummle') wasn't then a Scottish word: 

O Fortune, they hae room to grumble!
Hadst thou taen aff some drwosy bummle,
Wha can do nought but fyke an' fumble
'Twad been nae plea'
But he was gleg as ony wumble,
That's owre the Sea!

It's hard to believe that if the word 'bumble' had been available to Burns he wouldn't have used it to rhyme with grumble, fumble and wumble.  (A 'wumble' incidentally appears to be the same as a wimble which is a drill (or auger) and 'gleg' means 'nimble' so that 'gleg as a wumble' presumably means nimble as a wimble!   From this poem, 'the drowsy bummle' is included in the Scottish dictionary under the definition of the idle fellow:


In 1833 we find a Peter Hogg writing from Altrieve Lake in the Scottish Borders to a Peter Muir of Edinburgh (as reproduced in The Antiquary of 18 January 1873) saying:

'You are a bummeling thrummeling fumbling rascal and have fairly lost your character as a first rate tradesman'.

If the word used had been bumbling we would here have an example of someone being referred to in a derogatory was as a bumbling rascal but it's important to remember that this isn't bumbling it's 'bummeling' and Hogg was using Scottish dialect.  To 'thrummel' or 'thrummil', incidentally, appears to mean to fumble or grope with the fingers.

Mr Bumble was a character in the 1838 book ‘Oliver Twist’.  He has been described as the ‘cruel pompous beadle of the poorhouse where the orphaned Oliver is raised’.   The word ‘bumbledom’ was derived from Mr Bumble and is said in one nineteenth century dictionary to mean ‘Fussy official pomposity; a sarcastic term applied especially to members of petty corporations, as vestries in England, and implying pretentious inefficiency’.  Mr Bumble wasn’t the blundering incompetent type of person implied by the expression ‘bumbling buffoon’ and there is no reason think that his character, or the word 'bumbledom', played any role in the way the word ‘bumbling’ came to be used.

The 1844 New Dictionary of the English language doesn’t include the word ‘bumbling’ or ‘bumble’. 


The 1845 Encyclopaedia Metropolitana or Universal Dictionary of Knowledge includes ‘bumble’ in relation to the noise of the bittern or bee (but, curiously, this is under the word ‘Bum’ from which it seems to suggest bumble is derived). Although there is no mention of bumbling, it gives the 1533 example by Thomas More of  'some bumlying aboute' as an example for 'bumble' without providing any definition in this sense, so no-one could have possibly understood from the dictionary what that example meant.

From Google Books, we find mention in an 1870 story entitled ‘The Cause and the Causer; The Post-Mortem’ by F.W. Keyl of ‘bumbling barristers’ but that’s in a story about insects.  A moth has been found dead, the doctor, Dr Earwig, is an earwig and the magistrate, Dr Helix, is a snail.  The barristers are ‘bumble bee barristers’ and there are a number of mentions of them as ‘bumbling barristers’ but, having read the entire story, there is no hint that they are incompetent or blundering.  At one point the magistrate refers to them as ‘my bumbling friends’ and the word ‘bumbling’ in this story, in my opinion, means nothing more than that they are bumble bees who therefore ‘bumble’ (which probably means humming like a bee).  The very fact that Keyl uses the term ‘bumbling barristers’ without them being humorously stupid or foolish strongly indicates that the word ‘bumbling’ with that meaning hadn't yet entered the English language (or to the extent that it existed in earlier centuries had, by this time, been forgotten).

The O.E.D. also includes a racing quote from 1876 which states: ‘Merry Girl beat Unknown in good style, the latter bumbling very much at his fences’ but I don’t think that’s quite the meaning, or at least the use, of the word ‘bumbling’ that we would associate with ‘bumbling buffoon’. 

We've already seen the Scottish word of 'bummeler' or 'bumler' to describe a blundering person and, deriving from this, and said to be Scottish in origin, ‘bumbler’  is included in the O.E.D. (although this word was also used to describe a bee).  The OED gives a seventeenth century use: ‘As long as ye give not Him the Chief Place and Room, ye will be but Bumblers at doing' and one from 1783 referring to ‘A bumbler or bungler of any piece of work’ which shows that a bumbler was synonymous with a bungler.

An 1846 'Glossary of North Country Words' by John Trotter Brockett defines a Bumbler (also Bummeler) as 'a blundering fellow, a bungler' and says that to Bummel or Bumble is 'to blunder, to bungle'.


This definition goes back to at least 1829 where it is found in the first edition of the glossary.  The author explains in the preface that 'Our Northern words and terms, though often disguised in different spelling and structure, bear strong affinity to the Scottish language' and that 'a number of words in this Glossary, which are unknown in the South, are in common use in the North of Scotland'. 

As to that, we've already seen an example from Jamieson's Scottish dictionary in 1808 and we may note that a 'bummler', 'bummeler', 'bumlar' or 'bumbler' can be found in a modern online Dictionary of the Scots Language here to mean variously someone who reads in an indistinct tone or sings or plays an instrument in a bungling manner, someone who stutters and stammers or speaks carelessly, someone who bustles about busily but noisily and not effectively, someone who blunders or confuses, someone who works confusedly and someone who weeps continuously.  A number of examples are given, including from the nineteenth century, but as they invariably refer to someone 'bummlin', or to people as 'bummlers', I'm not going to repeat them here, because it's not actually bumbling. 

A Scottish book, 'The Dialect of Banffshire' published in 1866 includes 'Bummlin'' for which the meanings given are (a) 'stupid and clumsy at working' (b) 'Having a habit of reading in a blundering, indistinct manner', (c) 'much given to weeping' with an example given as 'There's that bummlin' loon t' the rod again.  He hiz his finger eye in 's ee'.  Had that been 'bumbling loon' it would have been an example of the type of expression we are looking for but, of course it's different and confined to an area of Scotland.

See also this Scots Word of the Week from the Scottish newspaper The Herald here discussing a 'Bummler' as a blundering person.

It may or may not be relevant that the German word 'bummeln' translates as strolling (or to stroll), to dawdle or to dillydally but let's not get into that.

In an 1851 book by John Ruskin we find this (referring to what was spoken in Durham):

'A humble or bumble bee is there called a 'bumbler'.  To bumble in Durham means to go buzzing about;  a fussy man would be called a great bumbler.'

That's interesting because a fussy man is not quite the same as a bungling man and could lead to confusion.

The earliest known use of 'bumbling' in the English language to describe a person, as mentioned above, seems to be in an 1866 novel by Eliza Lynn Linton, a writer from Cumbria, who refers to a woman having fallen in love with 'a sandy-powed bumbling fellow' who was a parson but who looked 'better like a gamekeeper than a parson'.  The meaning of 'bumbling' in this context is not entirely clear. ('pow' or 'powe', by the way, was a North Country word meaning 'head' so she's talking about a sandy-haired fellow).  Another character in the same book referred to his own 'slight well-knit figure' which was 'by no means of the "bumbling" order' whatever that is supposed to mean. 

An 1881 book by the same Eliza Lynn Linton, My Love, appears to be the first nineteenth century English work to describe a particular person as a ‘bumbler’ as the author says, ‘Ran is the best follow in the world, but he is a bit of a bumbler when all is said and done’.  It's fair to say, I think, that 'bumbler' wasn't a particularly well known word nor much used (just as it isn't today).

I do find it very, interesting, though, that Eliza Linton, who is generally recognized has having coined the word 'bumbler'  in the nineteenth century, then went on to be the person who provides the second known recognizable reference of a person being bumbling in her 1886 book Paston Carew in which, as set out in the main article, a rector's son is described as 'a big bumbling fellow...awkward as a mastiff puppy or nestling cuckoo'.  As I've said above, this suggests more awkwardness then bungling incompetence.

This use of the word 'bumbling' is cited under the word 'Bummellan' to mean 'awkward, blundering' in an 1899 publication entitled 'Glossary of the Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland' by W. Dickinson clearly showing that it was still regarded as a North Country word at the end of the century. 

It is also the case that 'Bumble' appears in an 1898 publication entitled 'The English dialect dictionary' in which it is said to have various dialect uses in different forms Scotland and England. The areas of use are stated to be Scotland, East Riding of Yorkshire, North Lancashire, Leicester and West Somerset. One definition of 'Bumble' is given as 'To bungle, blunder, make a mess of; to halt, stumble' and one of 'Bumbling' is given as 'awkward, blundering'.  All examples given are in respect of 'bummel' other than one from 1883 in which a coat is referred to as being 'bumbled up', an undated one saying 'Will I be ter'ble bumbled' and the Linton quote of 'his own trim, slight, well-built figure, by no means of the bumbling order' from 1867.  There's also another from 1866 in Notes & Queries: 'If I've seed anybody in ar bit of a bumble about his work'. I reproduce the full extract below to show all the examples. 

Bumble 1.jpg
Bumble 2.jpg

Ten years earlier, the massive nine volume 1888 New English Dictionary on Historical Principles did include an entry for ‘Bumbling’ and gave two definitions, both said to be obsolete: (a) blundering (b) buzzing or humming.  Of the three examples provided, two related to flies and bees while the only example given of apparent blundering was the 1533 example referred to above by Thomas More of  ‘bumlying aboute a colour’.  Under 'Bumble', said to be 'obs. exc. Sc', meaning: obsolete except in Scotland, defined as: 'To blunder, flounder' we find Thomas More's 1533 quotes (said to be from 1532) referring to 'The thynge where about he hath bombled' and another 'bumbled about' quote from More relating to Tindall. We also have a 1719 Ramsay quote of 'say ye bummil Ye'r poetrie' and Stagg from 1807 saying 'As for a bang he bummel'd'.  The word ‘Bumbler’ is also included as a dialect word and is defined as a blunderer (but with the only example given of the extract from Eliza Linton's book referred to above).

In theory, then, one could have taken the word 'bumbling' to mean 'blundering' and called someone a 'bumbling buffoon' but it's clear that this did not happen in practice and my suggestion is that, in the real world, 'bumbling' was not a word in 1888 which brought to mind an incompetent, bungling, useless idiot or fool and it wasn't used by anyone to describe individuals as such.  At best, it would have been thought of as someone (or something) bumbling about or bumbling around or carrying out a task in a bumbling way.  It wasn't (as proved by actual examples) a word which would be used to describe a person.  

It's worth noting that the television programme ‘Call my Bluff’ ran in the UK for 23 years in which two teams of three people provided definitions of obscure words (taken, I think, from the O.E.D.), two of which were false and one was correct.  The other team had to guess the correct definition.  This shows that there are many words in the dictionary which normal people don't understand.  In respect of a 'bumbler' or 'bumbling' to mean a blunderer or blundering person respectively we really only have three examples of actual usage prior to 1888, all provided by the same person, Eliza Linton, who used both words in her books and who was from the North Country (in circumstances where we are told by the reference books that 'bumbling' was North Country dialect).  So she liked the word and it clearly could be used to describe a blunderer (although she seems to have used it to mean an awkward person) but the evidence clearly suggests that it wasn’t in general use in this way.  Other dictionaries didn’t even include it.

The 1889 Century Dictionary, for example, gives only four meanings for ‘bumble’ other than a bee (namely to make a humming noise, to make a splash in the sea, to scold and to start off quickly). 

When we get to Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language published in 1908 we also don’t have an entry for 'bumbling' or 'bumble'. Webster’s 1913 Unabridged Dictionary also doesn’t include ‘bumble’ (other than in respect of a bee or bittern) or ‘bumbling’. 

Sure, someone could be 'bumbling along'  (whatever that meant) as we find in ''The Field' of 19 March 1887 but that's still a long way from calling a person a bumbling [something].

A 1908 short story by an American writer, Edwina Stanton Babcock, entitled 'In the Green Theater' published in The Outing magazine refers to 'a sound' being 'more bumbling than grumbling' but one of the characters says, 'Bumbling isn't a real word?'.  Similarly, in a 1916 book entitled The Kings Men by John Palmer one character refers to 'the bumbling of the Baddeleys'  (the Baddeleys being a family) while another says that the other character 'invented the word'. 

The Staffordshire Sentinel of January 1906 includes a story by Edward Hamilton Currey which has a line referring to a sailing boat 'bumbling out of the Humber at a proud three knots an hour' which, being proud, doesn't seem to give the impression of floundering or blundering but might mean sailing awkwardly or possibly splashing its way through the river, bearing in mind one of the definitions in the 1889 Century dictionary of splashing in the sea.

As we've seen in the main text, a 1909 book by Eden Phillpotts included a line ‘Why, God stiffen it, you bumbling fool!’  Without further research I wouldn’t like to say for sure that this was the first written combination of ‘bumbling’ with a derogatory noun such as ‘fool’ but I think it might have been or, if not, it wasn’t long after the first such use.   I suspect that it’s only AFTER THIS that the word 'bumbling' carries a derogatory connotation over and above awkwardness in the general English language. 

My suggestion is that THIS is why no-one in 1888 would have thought of tagging ‘bumbling’ onto the front of ‘buffoon’.  It just didn’t convey a meaning of buffoonery at that time.  Certainly, as a matter of fact, no-one appears to have done so, hence we don’t find it being used until almost the second half of the twentieth century.  In my view, based on what I’ve discovered so far, it took time for ‘bumbling’ to mean a fool or idiot to filter through into the English language as used by normal people.  And it was only then, after people became comfortable with the concepts of a 'bumbling fool' and a 'bumbling idiot', that 'bumbling' became appropriate to use in front of 'buffoon' and replaced as first choice of the writer the words 'bungling' and 'blundering'  which had previously been used to emphasize the nature of the buffoon. 

One thing worth noting to avoid confusion is that a story by Phil Robinson (eventually published in 1897 in a book called 'In Garden Orchard & Spinney'), part of which was originally published in some UK newspapers in 1887 under the title of 'Wasps', has a wasp referring to a bee as 'You bumbling fellow, in your jerkin of woolly brown' but again the bumbling relates to the bee (and presumably to its humming).

Finally, I just want to stress that I'm here attempting to explain why we don't as a matter of fact find 'bumbling buffoon' or 'bumbling [anything]'  in any known nineteenth century document.  This is my best explanation.  I'm not saying that this must be the answer but I can't think of a better one.  If anyone wants to argue that I'm wrong, without providing a better explanation, I suggest the only way to do it is to find an example of the expression actually used in the nineteenth century.  If you can't do it that must tell you something, no?


First published: 19 September 2020
Re-published: 30 January 2024

Updated July 2024

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