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  • Lord Orsam

Let's Go Bumbling

In the third paragraph of the diary, we find the diarist, who is supposed to be writing in 1888, describing Dr Hopper "as a bumbling buffoon". Later, while speaking of his habit of taking strong medicine, he writes that his wife "has informed the bumbling buffoon", meaning Dr Hopper.

A poster on Casebook called "The Baron" was the first to point out in August 2020 that "bumbling buffoon" is a twentieth century expression. This is due to the word "bumbling" not being a generally used word in the nineteenth century to mean clumsy, inept, incompetent, clownish, floundering, bungling or blundering. If it was used at all, it was to refer to the humming sound made by bees (or some other characteristic of a bee).

That it was not a generally used word in the nineteenth century to mean incompetent, bungling or blundering is demonstrated by the fact that it (or "bumble") isn't included with that meaning in Samuel Johnson's 1827 A Dictionary of the English Language, the 1844 New Dictionary of the English Language , the 1889 Century Dictionary, Chambers' 1901 Twentieth Century Dictionary, Funk's 1893 A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (although this dictionary does include the noun "bumbler' to mean a bungler or blunderer), the 1908 Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, the 1911 A Modern Dictionary of the English Language, nor Webster's 1913 Unabridged Dictionary. It only appears in the 1887-8 A New Dictionary on Historical Principles as an obsolete word (excepting in certain regional dialects) and this remained the case in the 1913 edition, which by that time had become known as the Oxford English Dictionary.

To date, no example of the expression "bumbling buffoon" has been located in print earlier than 1948.

This is that example from The CIO News (an American publication of The Congress of Industrial Organisations) of 16 February 1948 when writing about former Vice President Henry Agard Wallace:

Although a popular expression in American newspapers during the 1950s and 1960s, we don't find "bumbling buffoon" in any British newspaper on the BNA database prior to 1966.

By contrast, we find an example of "blundering buffoon" as early as 1818. This is in the Irish newspaper, Saunders's News-Letter, of 5 October 1818 in the context of a review of a play called 'The West Indian':

In the Morning Post of 2 October 1826, we can find an example of a "blustering buffoon", while an 1853 book by T. Robertson entitled The Whole French language comprised in a series of lessons gives us an example of a "bungling buffoon" (with the French translation, if anyone is interested, being "inepte baladin").

We can also find "incompetent buffoon" in the Stonehaven Journal of 20 March 1884 and "clumsy buffoon" in the 14 September 1830 issue of the Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier as well as in the 11 December 1861 issue of the Liverpool Mercury.

In the context of these actual nineteenth century examples of blundering, blustering, bungling, incompetent and clumsy buffoons, it is both extraordinary and striking that there is no known example of a bumbling buffoon in print anywhere prior to 1948.


Crucially, though, it's not just in respect of buffoons. Although there is an early 1909 reference in an English novel to a "bumbling fool" as discussed further below, there are no known examples of any of the following before the 1930s at the earliest (with most not being found before the 1940s and some much later):

Bumbling idiot

Blundering dim-wit

Bumbling half-wit

Bumbling incompetent

Bumbling simpleton

Bumbling twit

Bumbling clown

Bumbling detective Bumbling doctor

Bumbling constable

Bumbling policeman

Bumbling police

Bumbling official

Bumbling villain

Bumbling criminal

Bumbling person

Bumbling Englishman

Bumbling American

Bumbling colonel

Bumbling captain

Bumbling major

Bumbling lieutenant

Bumbling sergeant

Bumbling sidekick

Bumbling lawyer

Bumbling amateur

Bumbling manager

Bumbling aristocrat

Bumbling nurse

Bumbling novice

Bumbling actor

Bumbling accountant

Bumbling dentist

Bumbling vicar

Bumbling chaplain

Bumbling associate

Bumbling scientist

Bumbling engineer

Bumbling artist

Bumbling MP

Bumbling politician

Bumbling civil servant

You can add whatever occupation or word after "bumbling" that you choose and you won't find a nineteenth century example, save for the word "fellow" which I will discuss presently. If, however, you replace the word "bumbling" with "bungling", "blundering" or "blustering" you will find a plethora of nineteenth century examples for most of them.


It's true, as I've said, that one does find "bumbling fellow" in an 1866 book by Eliza Lynn Linton. In this novel, Lizzie Lorton of Greyrigg, a parson called Mark Dowthwaite is described as a "sandy-powed bumbling fellow", while another character in the book, looking, at his own "trim, slight, well-knit figure'" says (somewhat bafflingly) that he was "by no means of the "bumbling" order". Linton was from the North Country. An 1846 book entitled Glossary of North Country Words by John Trotter Brockett defines a Bumbler (also Bummeler) in the North Country dialect as "a blundering fellow, a bungler" and says that to Bummel or Bumble is "to blunder, to bungle":

One would assume that Linton from the North Country was using the North Country word "bumbling" in this sense but it's very unclear from the context of her novel what it's supposed to mean. There is nothing of the blundering, bungling buffoon about Mark Dowthwaite and a reader of Linton's book wouldn't have considered Frank Harcourt to be a buffoonish type character.

The same is true of the next time Linton used the word "bumbling", which was in her 1886 book Paston Carew (although she had, by this time, described a character in an 1881 book as "a bit of a bumbler"). In Paston Carew, a character called Frank Harcourt is said to be "a big bumbling fellow with lint-white hair, a skin that tanned red, and as awkward as a mastiff puppy". While the word "bumbling" here might carry the impression of awkwardness, especially considering that Harcourt is likened to an awkward mastiff puppy, there is again no sense of a blundering or bungling buffoon about Harcourt who seems to be an otherwise normal person.

There is every reason to think that Eliza Linton's use of "bumbling" was idiosyncratic to her, at least in comparison to other published writers of the time, having presumably become familiar with it while growing up and living in the North Country.

Linton's use of the word "bumbling", and the fact that in certain regional British dialects "to bumble" meant to blunder, means that one can't say that it's literally impossible for a diarist writing in 1888 to have formed the expression "bumbling buffoon", in the same way that "one off instance" is impossible, but the idea has no credibility.


Although there is a 1909 novel by Eden Phillpotts (from Devon) entitled The Three Brothers, in which a character called Jack Head says to Timothy Waite: "Why, God stiffen it you bumbling fool! who d'you think you are, and who d'you think any man is?", Waite isn't a buffoon type character. While Head also calls Waite "a vain, puffed up booby" there is nothing obviously foolish, incompetent or buffoonish about Waite. At the same time, it's fair to say that if an English writer in 1909 could have a character describe another character as a "bumbling fool", that character could, in theory, have equally said "bumbling buffoon". And then perhaps one could say that this could have been done earlier than 1909. But this is theoretical only. I would suggest it didn't happen, even in the early twentieth century, because there were so many other words - bungling, blundering, blustering being three - which far better at that time, and much more clearly, conveyed the meaning of the type of character or behaviour which would naturally accompany buffoonery.

The next use of "bumbling" of which we are aware is in a book called The Net by John Pudney published in 1912. In this novel, a character called Colonel Dennis Bord had just admitted to murdering the Deputy Director of the Port Amberley Research Station and said, by way of justification, that he had merely taken the life "of a single bumbling old man". The Deputy Director had earlier been described as "one of the most able administrators in the service" but also "reactionary, time-wasting, obstructive, devious". Not in any way an incompetent, bungling, buffoon type character.

Then, in 1925, in his book Arrowsmith, the American novelist described one of his characters, Ira Hinkey, a parson who was, at the time, a medical student in a class in which a guinea pig was killed, as "an extraordinarily kindly man, this huge and bumbling parson" who "reverently accepted everything, no matter how contradictory to everything else that his medical instructors taught him, but this killing of animals - he hated it". Once again, although a character is described vaguely as "bumbling" there is nothing inherently incompetent, bungling or buffoonish about this individual who is also described in a positive light as an "extraordinarily kindly" person. Indeed, it's now the fifth occasion going back to 1866 in which it's difficult if not impossible to work out the meaning of "bumbling" from the context in which it's being used.


What I now wish to share is what I believe to be the primary reason that expressions such as "bumbling buffoon" became popular in the twentieth century.

I think it may just be down to one man: Briton Hadden the co-founder in 1923 of Time magazine who is said (on Wiki) to be "the inventor of its revolutionary writing style, known as Timestyle".

According to a 2010 book by Alan Brinkley, The Publisher, Hadden encouraged the writers of his fledgling magazine to use interesting new words and he even created the verb "to heffle" which was used about Alabama senator James Thomas Heflin, being supposed to mean "to talk loud and long without saying much".

According to Joan Lapore, writing in 2010:

"Hadden liked to coin words, compounds like “news-magazine.” He imported “tycoon,” “pundit,” and “kudos” into English."

Importantly for our purposes, Brinkley explains that Hadden created a style sheet for the writers of Time in which:

Hadden encouraged Time writers to use vivid words, whether newly invented or not.  People in Time were “famed,” not “famous”; “potent,” not “powerful”; “blatant,” not “obvious.”  They “whacked” rather than “struck,” “ogled” rather than “looked,” “strode” rather than “walked,” and “smirked” rather than “smiled”.  They “irked”, “bumbled”, “yexed,” and “ousted”.

Of particular interest here is the instruction to use the word "bumbled".

We find that, following the style sheet, in the 23 May 1927 issue of Time it was said that, “the Council of Aldermen bumbled loudly”, while, in the 19 May 1927 issue, we find: “Senator Bruce who bumbled repetitiously".

This second example is the key example because poor old William Cabell Bruce, the senator for Maryland from 1922 to 1928, became a bit of a target for Time magazine's writers, being referred to as "Maryland's bumbling Bruce" (27 August 1928), "bumbling Senator Bruce" (12 November 1928) and (again) "Maryland's bumbling Bruce" (4 February 1929 and 4 March 1929).

One thing that's important to note here is that, from the two 1927 examples of "bumbled", we can see that to bumble had something to do with speaking in a certain way. It may conjure up various images but could relate to an unappealing mixture of mumbling, stumbling (over words), stuttering, stammering, rambling, waffling and droning (which are all part of the modern dictionary definition of the verb to bumble).

So when Bruce was referred to as "bumbling Bruce" during 1928, it might not so much have been about his competency, or his bungling nature as a senator, as about the (perhaps) hesitant, inarticulate or dull way in which he spoke.


But the individual who really got it in the neck from the journalists of Time was the British politician and leader of the Conservative Party, Stanley Baldwin. It started in the 14 November 1929 issue of Time which said:

“turgid, bumbling Conservative Stanley Baldwin was long-winded and unsupportive”.

Around this time, in late 1929, others in Great Britain, such as Sir Lionel Halsey, Comptroller of the King's Household, and Tom Shaw, the War Minster, were also being described by Time as "bumbling" while in September 1930 it was the turn of a "tousled, bumbling, foxy old Frenchman” being the former French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand.

But from October 1931 onwards, during the period of a National Government under Ramsay MacDonald, when Baldwin held the office of Lord President of the Council, the "bumbling" target was really on the man. Hence:

Time, 19 October 1931: "bumbling Mr Baldwin".

Time, 26 October 1931: "Stanley Baldwin, pudgy, bumbling Conservative leader".

Time, 25 April 1932: "bumbling party Leader Stanley Baldwin".

Time, 25 July 1932: "benign, bumbling, pipe-puffing Mr Baldwin".

Time, 19 June 1933: "Bumbling old Stanley Baldwin".

Time, 10 July 1933: "the party's titular Leader, beloved and bumbling"

Time, 13 November 1933: "bumbling Stanley Baldwin".

The description of Stanley Baldwin as "bumbling" was repeated in American newspapers, with the Texas newspaper, the Aberline Daily Reporter of 26 May 1935, for example, attributing the description "bumbling Stanley Baldwin" directly to Time magazine.

This little insult soon reached the ears of British journalists and, on 15 November 1933, was repeated by the foreign editor of the Daily Express who noted with amusement that, "Mr Baldwin is described in the American press as "Bumbling Baldwin". It was also reported by Gerald Barry in his column in the London Daily News of 7 June 1935 (at a time Baldwin was now Prime Minister) when discussing a government propaganda film broadcast by a travelling "cinema van":

"For the first time I understood the full excellence of the adjective applied to him by an American journalist - "bumbling Stanley Baldwin".

As Barry explained, Baldwin "did bumble" and "bumbled about the magnificent record of the government". Interestingly, therefore, "bumble", for Barry, seems to have meant being a typical politician, spinning things and saying things that weren't true, perhaps in an unconvincing way. It's certainly being applied to a Baldwin speech rather than to the character of Baldwin himself. But importantly we can see that Barry attributes the description to "an American journalist".

Ten days later, Time magazine, reporting a speech Baldwin gave at Himley Hall in Birmingham on 8 June 1935, said:

"As a program speech, logically considered, this was sheer bumbling and burbling, but such purely emotional talk from an Englishman like Stanley Baldwin goes straight to English hearts."

The concept of "bumbling and burbling" seems to describe sounds being made by the Prime Minister.

That "bumbling" was thought of primarily as a noise at the time appears to be confirmed by a comment in a sketch in the Hull Daily Mail of 27 June 1936 referring to, “the curious bumbling noise which issues from the House of Commons at certain sessions”, which the sketch writer jokingly put down to MPs talking, as opposed to faulty plumbing. In the next year, on 20 February 1937, the sketch writer of the same newspaper referred to politicians talking "in a kind of bumbling baritone, suggestive of escaping bath water".

In emphasising this, I don't want to suggest that the word "bumbling" in "bumbling buffoon" doesn't in any way refer to a certain inarticulacy of speech. I'm thinking of Nigel Bruce's Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946 who, purely from the way he spoke, could be described as "bumbling" without necessarily being incompetent or bungling. In modern times, however, he has been described as a "bumbling buffoon".

Anyway, although the American papers and journals loved to speak of "Bumbling Baldwin", the British press were more restrained and generally didn't use that epithet, with the exception of the Daily Express. According to a 2009 book by Jeremy Dobson, Why Do the People Hate Me So? The Strange Interlude Between The Two Great Wars in the Britain of Stanley Baldwin, Lord Beaverbook of the Daily Express "instructed the writers of the 'William Hickey' column in the Express to refer to the Premier as 'Bumbling Stanley Baldwin'." That may not be entirely correct but a search of the Daily Express archives reveals the writer of the William Hickey column on 23 August 1935 wrote in the Daily Express that, when it comes to Baldwin, ""Time" American news magazine, habitually refers to him as "bumbling Stanley Baldwin"."

Back in America, John Patrick O'Brien, Mayor of New York City, was the next target for Time's writers, being repeatedly labelled the "bumbling Mayor" or similar during 1933 until he was defeated at an election.


In 1933, a supplement to Murray's A New Dictionary on Historical Principles (the precursor to the Oxford English Dictionary which itself had actually first been published in 1913) was issued in which the word "obsolete" was removed from the definition of the word "bumble" as a blunderer or idler. This doesn't seem to have been a result of the contemporary use of "bumbling" in the United States, rather that the compilers had spotted Eliza Lynn Linton's use of the word in her 1886 novel (which would have been too late to include in the 1887/8 edition of the dictionary).


In England we find some limited use of the word "bumbling" (unrelated to bees) in the newspapers during the remainder of the 1930s. In the William Hickey column of the Daily Express of 1 January 1936, the English novelist J.B. Priestly was described as the "notably bumbling, round faced Priestly". A writer for the Daily Mirror of 2 April 1937 complained that a good lawyer could avoid a custodial sentence for a thief, ensuring only a ten pound fine "and a lot of bumbling nonsense from the aged drones who man our magisterial benches". Tatler of 28 April 1937 spoke mystifyingly of a golfer who, with "a bumbling kind of stroke", scuffed the ball up over the bank. Ireland's Saturday Night newspaper of 13 November 1937 referred to man talking to his wife "privately in a low, bumbling voice". Of slightly more relevance is a book review of The Fox Prowls by Valentine Williams in the London Daily News of 31 May 1939 in which it is stated that the character of British Secret Service agent Dan Boulton "has the attractive, bumbling, furniture upsetting manners of a large dog". Boulton, it is said, "is an extremely likeable creature, with his gift for doing the absurdest and most risky things in the most roundabout way" and avoids danger, "with a skill that one thrilling episode after another". So Boulton may have been in some way bumbling but not buffoonish, it would seem.

But, since the use in the Express (citing Time) of "bumbling" to describe Baldwin, we don't really find the word used in a critical way to describe either a real or fictional person for some considerable time. In 31 May 1939 the Daily Mirror was critical of the "bumbling officialdom" which had caused a poorly considered notice about air raid precautions to be issued relating to the evacuation of children. It's not impossible that the Mirror journalist was influenced by Dickens' Mr Bumble and the word "Bumbledom" when writing about bumbling officialdom, especially considering the lack of the word "bumbling" in other contexts, because Bumbledom (which was a quite common word used in newspapers during the 1930s) related specifically to petty officialdom. In January 1940, the Daily Mirror again criticised "bumbling officialdom" in response to a report that a soldier whose mother was dying hadn't been given enough money by the authorities to enable him to pay his fare home.

By now, "bumbling" was a word that was used quite a lot in the American press, especially to describe British politicians, and this is reflected in a letter to a British citizen from the editor of an American newspaper reproduced in the Yorkshire Post of 12 April 1940 which spoke of "The bumbling of your present government [which] has not inspired America".

That the word "bumbling" was now embedded in the English language to mean an incompetent person is demonstrated by the fact that Basil Rathbone, playing Sherlock Holmes disguised as an elderly Swiss bookseller in the popular (now colourised) 1942 film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, mischievously and deceptively told a couple of Nazi spies that he'd learnt that the English, "are sending a stupid, bumbling amateur detective. His name his Holmes, or Homes or some foolishness".

In 1947, we find what at first blush might appear to be another clear cut example of "bumbling" being used in a British newspaper in the same sense it is used in the expression "bumbling buffoon". A film review of I'll Be Yours refers to one character, called Wechsberg, played by William Bendix, as "the earnest but bumbling philanthropist". Modern reviews of the film describe Weschberg as "cranky but kindhearted" and "amusing and sometimes exasperated". So he was likely not quite as buffoonish as the expression "bumbling philanthropist" might suggest in this case.

Perhaps we come closer to the classic meaning of "bumbling" in the Illustrated London News of 17 April 1948 with a review of the stage farce The Happiest Days of Your Life involving a strangely familiar sounding girls school called "St Swithens", whose headmistress was played by Margaret Rutherford, which refers to "George Howe as a bumbling schoolmaster". Other reviews describe Rowe's character as "short, rotund and somewhat pompous", "testy and bewildered" and "a tangle of wool faced by the snapping scissors of Miss Rutherford" thus, I think, taking us much closer to what we would expect from someone described as a "bumbling schoolmaster".

As we've seen, the first currently known appearance of "bumbling buffoon" in print came in the United States in 1948 but there's still a way to go for British journalists because we don't find this expression in any newspaper on the British Newspaper Archive database until November 1966 when the Diss Express reviewed a play called "Busybody" in which a Superintendent Baxter, "was a high ranking officer of the law and not just a bumbling buffoon". The fact that this officer was not a bumbling buffoon, or rather not just a bumbling buffoon, suggests that the expression was already fairly well established in the UK and it is somewhat surprising therefore that one can't locate any British books on Google Books containing this expression prior to 1966 but I have little doubt that it must have been used in some (British) books about films earlier than this and probably in review sections of magazines that aren't on the British Newspaper Archive, going back to at least the 1950s.

Here are just a few examples of the growing use of "bumbling in British newspapers during the late 1940s:

London Daily News, 11 May 1948 – "what bumbling amateur of a politician can compete with this”.

Sunday Mirror, 23 May 1948 – The most bumbling inefficient display I have ever seen and heard by sports officials in a dozen countries was the one which left the crowd at the recent big White City athletic meeting balked, bamboozled and bewildered.


Eastbourne Chronicle 18 June 1948 –  re Sandy Powell: “Sandy is on stage most of the time in his typical sketches exploiting the bumbling brand of humour which has made him famous”.

Grimsby Daily Telegraph 31 July 1948 – re Olympics: “Bumbling inefficiency at Wembley – U.S. Newsman”  and “US Correspondents at the Games yesterday attacked the organisation: “Sagged…few genuine high spots…Oxford English difficult to understand...wearisome…dawdling…bumbling…inefficiency”.

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 31 July 1948 - “The bumbling International Amateur Athletic Federation officials..”

Dublin Evening Herald,14 August 1948 - “the bumbling Soviet Consul-General”.

Weekly Dispatch, 19 September 1948 – re Mr Bevin, referred to one of his “more bumbling digressions in his long and jumbled speech last week”.

Irish Independent ,15 October 1948 (re US politics) referred to “lively and idiomatic denunciations of the Administration’s bungling and bumbling”.


Illustrated London News, 13 Nov 1948 – "a characteristically cynical tale of a modern Polonius who sends his tennis-playing son on his first trip abroad with the bumbling advice that he must avoid gambling, lending money, and making love."


Manchester Evening News, 23 March 1949 – Professor Arthur Shelley may be a famous scientist, but he is also a bumbling and indecisive old gentleman in whose veins a vague pink liberalism takes the place of red blood.”

Times, 3 July 1949 (film review) – “some bumbling detective work by Charles Coburn”.

The Scotsman, 9 July 1949 - re Truman: “A fumbling, bumbling dim-wit”.

Chelmsford Chronicle, 16 December 1949 (letter to editor) –No bumbling policemen, therefore, no astute private enterprise detectives.” 


That's just a two year period, remember, but there are zero examples in the 100 years of the nineteenth century. How do diary defenders explain it? Especially as we have plenty of usage of bungling and blundering.


We should not forget the issue of Dogberry, a constable in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Many modern books refer to him as 'the bumbling Dogberry', and Google Books gives us 1954 as the earliest appearance of this expression (in which the author compares a real life police sergeant to a "bumbling Dogberry") with the earliest appearance in Google Books directly in respect of Shakespeare's play being from a 1975 book, Crowell's Handbook of Elizabethan and Stuart Literature, as below:

However, while we don't find any such description in the nineteenth century, the BNA gives us a result for "blundering Dogberry' in the Evening Sun of 4 August 1842:

Going back even further, the annotations to the play from 1806 in Google Books, from The Plays of William Shakespeare edited by Manley Wood, also give us 'The blundering Dogberry':

It's true that we don't find any nineteenth century example of "the bungling Dogberry" but we do find the reviewer for the Manchester Courier of Much Ado About Nothing at The Prince's Theatre referring on 2 March 1865 to Dogberry's "bungling diction of the inflated functionary" while Dogberry was described as "a type of a class of bungling judicial impotents" in Shakespeare's Delineations by A.O. Kellogg published in 1866 (originally published in the American Journal of Insanity in 1861).

It's a good example showing how the word "bumbling" came to replace "blundering" and '"bungling" as a word of choice during the twentieth century, having not been available to writers during the nineteenth century. 


Why did "bumbling" become so popular in the twentieth century that it led to the much-used expression "bumbling buffoon"?

Was it solely as a result of Time magazine's use of the word "bumbling" as directed by Briton Haddon or was there more to it?

I have a theory about this.

It relates to the meaning of the word "bumbling" (or "bumble").

As far as I'm aware, "bumble" or "bumbling" in any sense other than that relating to a bee, didn't make it into any single volume dictionaries of the type sold to the general public nor any thesaurus until the 1970s.

The word "bumbling" was added to the 1972 supplement of the OED proper supplement when it was given the meaning of "awkward, blundering".

But was that all it meant?

Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary of 1972 appears to be the first commercial dictionary to include the verb "bumble", the meaning of which was given as "to bungle, to utter indistinctly, to bustle about blunderingly".  Similarly, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary of 1976 explained that it means "ramble on in speaking; move or act ineptly or flounderingly".

You will note that this is two separate meanings, one relating to the act of bungling ineptly, the other relating to the manner of speaking by uttering indistinctly or rambling. This is something found in most modern definitions of the word. Hence the Concise Oxford Dictionary 2002 edition defines bumble as to "act or speak in an awkward or confused manner" (underlining added).

Personally, I don't think it's quite as binary as this particular definition suggests whereby it's one of the other. It's more a blend of both of them.

The word "bumbling" unlike its two closest synonyms, "blundering" and "bungling" seems to include something about the way a person speaks, as much as the way they behave, and thus carries an additional meaning that "blundering" and "bungling" does not.

A "bumbling buffoon", I would suggests, conveys a different (if subtly different) meaning to a "blundering buffoon" or "bungling buffoon" because it involves something buffoonish in the way the person speaks. In the same way, it's different from a "blustering buffoon" because that only relates to a way of speaking whereas "bumbling" is also about a way of acting awkwardly and incompetently.

In this respect I find it interesting that Bell's New Weekly Messenger of 8 September 1833 said: "Mr Power can play nothing but the low Irishman, and the low Irishman of the English stage; that is to say, a blustering, blundering buffoon". How much better and more efficient use of language to replace "blustering, blundering" with one word: "bumbling"?

On a different point about the word "bumbling" in respect of its popularity in the twentieth century, it's of interest that the Oxford Thesaurus of 2009 gives us an example of the use of the adjective "bumbling" as: "Sherlock Holmes' bumbling sidekick Watson". This is certainly true of the famous portrayal of Watson in the movies by Nigel Bruce but this is a modern twentieth century way of viewing the character. As a 2006 essay by John Reid published in Short Story Criticism astutely remarks:

"It is commonly assumed that Watson is somewhat slowwitted. This myth probably has its origins in the films of the 1930s and 1940s starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. Although endearing in the context of the film, Bruce’s portrayal of Watson as a bumbling buffoon has led to the general assumption that this is how Watson acts in the books. In fact, Watson is a man of education, graduating with an MD from the University of London in 1878. He then undertook further training with a view to being commissioned as an army surgeon."

A nineteenth century reader of the Sherlock Holmes books, therefore, would not have thought of Watson as a bumbling buffoon.

I think it's fair to say that the two great bumbling buffoons in popular culture are Nigel Bruce's Dr Watson and Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. Both from films. Watson I would suggest is more bumbling due to his way of speaking whereas Clouseau is more bumbling due to the way he behaves, although, of course, his outrageous French accent is part of the comedy.

Looking through the archives, it would seem that "bumbling buffoon" has largely, although not exclusively (and possibly not, as we've seen, in the first instance), been used to describe fools from Film and TV. Certainly this is how the term has become popular. From film, we find characters played by Buster Keaton, Will Hay, Terry Thomas, Bob Hope and Cary Grant referred to as bumbling buffoons and, from television, the characters Reg Holdsworth from Coronation Street and Benny from Crossroads as well as Basil Fawlty, Mr Bean and Ade Edmondson's less well known character of Guy Fuddle in the BBC sitcom Happy Families.

During the nineteenth century, none of these characters, of course, existed. One does find in newspapers the odd comedy character in a play described as a "blundering buffoon" with others given this epithet often being politicians, and, of course, we've discussed the blundering Dogberry from Shakespeare (who I haven't, it should be said, found described as a "blundering buffoon"), but what I'm saying is that the "bumbling buffoon" as a character in popular culture, whether or not that description was applied to them at the time, very much emerges during the twentieth century in film and television.

For me, it all adds to the sheer implausibility of James Maybrick as the supposed author of a diary in 1888 uniquely deciding to describe his doctor as a bumbling buffoon.


What I think happened here is that Briton Hadden in the 1920s took a somewhat obscure, rarely used (possibly even obsolete) English word of "bumbling" which he liked the sound of and included it in Time's style sheet which led it to be applied to a variety of politicians, including the British Prime Minister, which, in turn, meant it was laundered back into English publications and popularized in the period leading up to the Second World War. Coincidentally, comedy characters in the relatively new Hollywood films with sound were popularly described as "bumbling buffoons" for the very first time. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if there are earlier references in print to bumbling buffoons relating to film characters prior to 1948.

I've looked at this at every possible angle and can't see any way that anyone is even remotely likely to have formulated the expression "bumbling buffoon" in 1888 even if it's not impossible that they could have done so.

Ultimately it doesn't really matter because "one off instance" proves the diary to be a fake without question, but "bumbling buffoon" is just another expression that should not be in an 1888 diary.

Lord Orsam

2 July 2024

See also: Bumbling About.

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Jul 03

The insult "bumbling boob" was also popular in the U.S. in the 1940s and 50s.

And again, the earliest example found dates to the late 1930s.

Below is a 1952 cartoon.

Lord Orsam
Jul 03
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It's another one the diary defenders just can't answer.


Jul 03
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent research David! And very informative!

Thank you

The Baron

Lord Orsam
Jul 03
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