Jewish World Review April 27, 2004 / 6 Iyar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
What is the derivation of the word "bozo''?
_M. F., Urbana, Illinois
Dear M. F.:
While we often see and hear the word "bozo'' applied to lackluster politicians, bad drivers, referees who make questionable calls, and a host of other unfortunate folks, we know very little about the origin of the word.
What we do know is this: "bozo'' is an Americanism that was first recorded in writing in 1916, when it occurred in a sentence of dialogue, "That you, Bertie, you old bozo!'' It was not glossed (that is, defined) within the context of the quote, so we can assume that it was known in spoken English before it appeared in written English.
Several theories as to the origin of "bozo'' have been advanced: That it is an adaptation of the Afro-Hispanic dialect "bozal''; that "bozo'' comes from the Italian "bozzo,'' referring to a cuckold; that it's an alteration of "hobo.'' Many people assume it is derived from the name of the famous clown, but the history of the clown name has never been thoroughly documented. It seems that there has been more than one Bozo in the clown world. Bozo was introduced commercially in 1940 when Capitol Records began a series of children records using the name.
In 1949 Capitol hired an actor named Larry Harmon to create a Bozo character for television. Harmon bought the licensing rights to the name from Capitol in the early 1950's and has been associated with Bozo the Clown ever since, most notably in a long-running children's television show initiated by WGN-TV in Chicago in 1960. However, the original Bozo of the Capitol recordings seems to have been an actual circus clown named Edwin Cooper, who performed with Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers. When he died in August 1961, at the age of 41, newspaper accounts claimed that both his father and grandfather also performed as Bozo, which would push the name back into the 19th century. But the truth of this assertion has never been documented.
Quite often when doing crossword puzzles, I'll find the word "elt'' given when the clue is "a young pig.'' I can't find the term in any dictionary. Is this a real word? I am becoming convinced the puzzle creators have made up a word to make letters fit, and I won't accept it unless you can clarify the matter.
_L. V., Denton, Texas
Dear L. V.:
The crossword-puzzle makers have certainly come up with a stumper. Rest assured though, that "elt'' is indeed a real word. Unfortunately, we have so very little evidence for its use by speakers and writers of modern English that we cannot enter the term in our dictionaries. Some of the evidence we do have points to your definition, "a young sow or pig.'' This meaning of "elt'' has been around since before 1864, when it was first recorded, but is found today only in certain British dialects.
Another meaning of "elt,'' which even some of the crossword-puzzle creators may not know, is "to knead.'' This use of "elt'' as a verb dates back to 1250 but is today considered obsolete.
Can you tell me about the origins of the phrase "spill the beans''?
_L. S. Woodstock, Vermont
Dear L. S.:
The phrase "spill the beans'' means to divulge information indiscreetly. The verb "spill'' had been used figuratively as early as the 16th century to mean divulge or pass on information. It did so, however, without the sense of indiscretion that "the beans'' has imparted to "spill the beans.'' The phrase originated in the United States as a slang expression in the early part of the 20th century. The earliest written evidence that we have seen for it is from 1919, although the phrase was certainly in spoken use for some time before that.
"Spill the beans'' was once a favorite cliche among writers of detective stories, in which it appears in statements like "Wilson in an indulgent moment of weakness spilt the beans.'' The use of "beans'' is a bit puzzling. In this phrase they represent valuable or at least desirable bits of information, while in most English idioms the bean is a measure of worthlessness: "He doesn't know beans'' or "It isn't worth a hill of beans,'' and so forth.
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