Simanaitis Says

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NOT ONLY does the word “buffoon” belong in my Etymology for our Times, there’s an operatic connection as well: Opera buffa is literally “comic opera” as opposed to opera seria, its serious counterpart.

Both buffoon and buffa originate in Old Italian, buffone, clown. Curiously, modern Italian has plenty of synonyms for buffone, including babbeo, idiota, mattacchione, and pagliaccio.

Pagliacci, 1892, opera in prologue and two acts, by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Image of the cover of the first piano score, 1892.

Though Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci ends with two of the four principals stabbed dead, its last line, spoken by Pagliacci the clown, is ”La commedia è finita!”

And, indeed, Pagliacci is not technically an opera seria. This term is reserved for those earlier Italian operas typically based on mythology. There were gods, not ordinary folk, doing the singing and dying.

But back to buffoon. Our pals Merriam and Webster give two definitions: “a ludicrous figure” and “a gross and usually ill-educated or stupid person.”

Merriam-Webster says buffoon’s first known use in English was in 1584. Other words of the day back then include “bloody-minded,” “martingale,” “shiftless,” and “stopcock.”

Is it any wonder that William Shakespeare, 1564–1616, had such a rich vocabulary at his behest?

M-W examples of buffoon are from the Web. They include “… don’t act like some buffoon at a frat party” and “Well, Mr. President, the world is no longer laughing at our buffoon who a minority of American voters elected into office.”

If you find this second one disrespectful, don’t write to me, write to Merriam-Webster or The Denver Post, whence it was published June 2, 2017.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, offers a similar etymology and slightly nuanced definitions as well as pre-Internet examples of buffoon’s usage.

The OED’s rendering of the Italian buffa is in the sense of jest, light and frivolous. Its earliest definition is Scottish, obsolete, and rare: “a pantomime dance.” From 1549: “Braulis and branglis, buffoons, vitht mony vycht dancis.” The second is “a comic actor, clown, a jester, fool.” The third is “a low jester, a man who practices indecent raillery.” From Samuel Johnson in 1750: “Falstaff, the cheerful companion, the loud buffoon.”

Falstaff und sein Page, by Adolf Schrödter, 1867. Sir John Falstaff is Shakespeare’s buffoon mentioned in five of his plays and appearing on-stage in three, Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In fact, the word “buffoon” has been waiting in the wings since June 16, 2015, when our current president announced his candidacy. It appears relatively late in my Etymology for Today only because so many others first rose to prominence: in alphabetical order, bully pulpit, chaos, comparative mendacity, deception, demagogue, hypocrisy, idiot, mendacity, and witch hunt.

Yes, there has truly been an etymologist’s surfeit (“overabundance,” “disgust caused by excess,” from Anglo-French surfaire, to overdo).

Unlike these others, though, the word “buffoon” fails to convey the requisite abject evil. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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