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Q From Jess Galchutt: From where does the word bozo come?

A This is yet another of those questions that can be easily and briefly asked but for which it is hard to provide an answer. Most dictionaries shuffle their feet and shrug when they come to this word, including only the safe but unhelpful “Origin uncertain”. They’re certainly correct, though to expand on that takes a lot of words. These will now follow.

The term first appears around 1916, initially meaning a person, fellow or man, but later taking on the senses of someone clumsy or foolish, or somebody oafishly rude or annoying, or a stupid or insignificant person, or “a muscular type with a meagre brain”, as the Dictionary of American Slang describes it. More recently, it has shifted sense to that of a buffoon or fool, with associations of clownishness. From this computer types have derived bozotic — the online Jargon File defines it as “resembling or having the quality of a bozo; that is, clownish, ludicrously wrong, unintentionally humorous”.

This shift, to the one that most Americans now know, happened in the 1950s and is due to one particular bozo — Bozo the Clown. His first appearance was in a combined book and record, Bozo at the Circus, which was produced by the fledgling Capitol Records in 1946 and which featured the voice of Pinto Colvig, a former circus clown. The character became a huge success, with several performers being Bozo in various places and times, including a popular television series in the 1950s.

As to where the older sense came from — pick your etymological dictionary and choose your origin. Might it be from the Spanish bozo, meaning “a light down on the upper lip, typical of adolescence”, or from another Spanish word bozal, simple or stupid (a word said to have been used in the slave trade and after for someone who spoke Spanish badly, hence stupid; the modern word means a muzzle or halter), or from the Italian bozzo, a cuckold or bastard? Or could it be an elaboration of the black English bo, a man, often a way of addressing someone, which is usually taken to be a contraction of hobo? You pays your money and you takes your choice.

But it seems more than probable that it also came from the proper name. American works of the early 1900s often include references to it. For example, The Autobiography of a Journalist, by William James Stillman (1901), says: “Meanwhile the operations on the southern frontier, under the direction of the amiable and competent Bozo Petrovich, remained for my observation.” Most examples of the personal name Bozo in newspapers of the time are attached to immigrants from central Europe, such as Dalmatia, Serbia, and Croatia; it seems plausible to suggest that bozo in its early days was a mildly derogatory immigrant stereotype, like Paddy or Polack.

If I may go out on a limb and mention one especially famous bozo of the onomastic sort at this period: Bozo Gopcevic of San Francisco, described as “a scion of the royal house of Serbia”. Bozo claimed the throne of Serbia and hoped to use money brought into his family by the marriage of his brother Milos (formerly a gripman on a San Francisco cable car) to Miss Floyd, an heiress, to further his ambitions. It all ended in tears, with Bozo suing Milos for living expenses in 1914 (by then the First World War had broken out, ending any hope of restoration).

It might just be possible, though unverifiable, that the unhappy but mildly humorous series of events involving Milos and Bozo could have contributed to the word’s wider appeal — the coincidence of dates is suggestive. But don’t quote me.

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Page created 17 Sep 2005