Meanings: “Baffle”

July 24, 2014

Reading something, I paused recently on the verb “baffle.” In one usage, it means to confuse. In another it means to soften or mute a sound. Assuming they were connected, I wondered which usage came first. Was one a metaphorical extension of the other?

Etymology.com has this surprising entry about “baffle”, which indicates that both derive from yet another usage:

baffle (v.): 1540s, “to disgrace,” perhaps a Scottish respelling of bauchle “to disgrace publicly” (especially a perjured knight), which is probably related to French bafouer “to abuse, hoodwink” (16c.), possibly from baf, a natural sound of disgust, like bah (compare German baff machen “to flabbergast”).

The entry goes on to say that the meaning “to bewilder, confuse” is from 1640s; and that of “to defeat someone’s efforts” is from 1670s.”

“Baffle” as a noun meaning a “shielding device,” is recognized from1881, derived from the verb form, and thus, I suppose, we now use “baffle” also as a verb to mean softening or muting a sound.

But all of this coming from an earliest usage meaning “to disgrace!” What a thought: when we baffle someone, we are disgracing them.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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