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Q From Dave McCombs, New Zealand: Has the word blooper ever been traced to a source?

A Yes, it has, and it’s rather a surprising one.

We have to go back to the pioneering days of radio broadcasting in the US in the early 1920s. The primitive valve radios of those times suffered from a serious problem. To make them more sensitive, they fed back part of the amplified signal to the input. But if the user increased that feedback too far to try to pick up a weak station, the radio became a transmitter and blotted out reception for up to a mile around it.

If you’ve heard a public-address system screeching because somebody has put the microphone too near the loudspeaker, you’ll have a very good idea of the experience for suffering nearby listeners. Two technical names for it are positive feedback and oscillation; it has many others (during my time at the BBC, the jargon term for it was howl-round).

The same problem bedevilled the early days of the BBC. Its chief engineer, Peter Eckersley, used to go on air and entreat listeners not to be so anti-social as to allow their sets to transmit: “Is this fair? Is this British? Don’t oscillate. Please don’t oscillate. Don’t do it.” He did this so often that he was nicknamed “Don’t Do It Eckersley”.

Americans didn’t call it oscillation, perhaps because it sounded a touch highfalutin. They named it blooping. The perpetrator was a blooper and the noise was a bloop.

Then some evening he wants to listen to a program clear through and the occassional [sic] “bloop” of his neighbors calls for his most blood-curdling curses.

Nevada State Journal, 16 Dec. 1923.

Nobody tried to explain where it came from at the time and nobody has managed to put forward an entirely satisfactory suggestion since. My guess, having heard lots of variations on the sound that feedback makes, is that the term imitated the noise in affected receivers, which probably wasn’t a shriek or whistle but a rapidly pulsing howl that sounded vaguely like “bloooop ... bloooop ... bloooop”.

The problem quickly grew worse as the number of sets mushroomed during the radio craze. The first example of blooper in print I’ve found is this, though for the sets rather than the perpetrators:

On account, perhaps, of the word of warning that was published in yesterdays paper in connection with the announcement of the presidents speech against improper handling of the radio sets of the radiating type, or “blooper” sets as they are coming to be called there was less interference than has been noted heretofore.

Lubbock Morning Avalanche (Texas), 23 Apr. 1924. To cap the typos in the item, the headline to the story misspelled the word as “blopper”. An early self-referential blooper.

Everybody knew what bloopers were and everybody hated them. To accidentally bloop was an embarrassing error; to do it deliberately was a crime against your neighbours.

In the middle 1920s blooper was taken up by baseball. I am, as you know, no expert here, and so I rely on descriptions by experts to say that it’s a sloppily hit ball that lofts into the gap between the infield and outfield for a base hit, an embarrassingly poor stroke on the part of the batsman that has a lucky result.

The Gambles tied it up in their half of the fourth when five hits and an error brought in four runs. Four of these hits were tantalizing “bloopers” which fell between the infielders and the outfielders about a yard inside of the left field foul line.

Freeport Journal Standard (Illinois), 27 Jun 1933.

The sense of a verbal or written error or indiscretion began to appear in print around 1940 (a writer to the Racine Journal Times of Wisconsin in January 1940 used bloopers for the typographical mistakes that he had found in the paper). The following year pull a blooper appeared, to make an embarrassing mistake:

We pulled a blooper, and we’re sorry. Here we were told that Dave Henry lost to Axel Johnson when the two softball greats teamed up in the Southern California playoffs three seasons ago. Actually the reverse was the case.

Oxnard Press-Courier (Oxnard, California), 12 Jun. 1941.

The specific sense of making a mistake before a microphone or camera is from movie jargon. The word started to appear in films in the early 1930s with the coming of the talkies. The short-lived blooping patch was a black strip stuck on a film’s optical soundtrack to cover the noise resulting from a splice. Compilations of errors in film, called bloops, are known from the 1930s, initially for private enjoyment:

But some of the nabobs of the films began collecting celluloid records of the “bloops” of which the screen players were guilty in reciting their lines, and so most of them now play safe with antics and verbal outbreaks that have become both unique and amusing.

Los Angeles Times, 15 Dec. 1935.

Blooper for such compilations became popular in the US in the 1950s through a series of records by a television producer named Kermit Schaefer under the general title Pardon My Blooper. Blooper reel was first used publicly of outtakes from Star Trek episodes in the early 1970s.

The evidence suggests that all these usages can be traced back to those anti-social individuals who let their radios oscillate in the early 1920s.

Incidentally, a closely similar but independently created term is bloomer, known in Britain and Australia. The evidence suggests it appeared in Australia in the late nineteenth century as a contraction of blooming error, where blooming is a much older euphemism for bloody. Its earliest record is in the Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant by Albert Barrère and Charles Godfrey Leland, published in Edinburgh in 1889. They say that it began as Australian prison slang.

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