For my latest appearance on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I take a look at the clownish roots of the word bozo. While the image of TV's Bozo the Clown is familiar to many generations of American youth, how did Bozo get his name in the first place? The answer may lie in vaudeville.
For many decades, the word bozo has been intimately linked to Bozo the Clown, a character that started off on a 1946 children's album and accompanying read-along book from Capitol Records. Bozo made the move to television in 1949, and later the character became a nationwide franchise, with different "Bozo" shows broadcast in regional markets (most famously Bob Bell, the Bozo for WGN in Chicago).
Larry Harmon, who bought the licensing rights for Bozo in 1956, was responsible for making the clown a national sensation, and he also guarded the name closely. When a Tennessee restaurant named Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q sought a trademark for "Bozo," Harmon fought back in court, even though the restaurant was named for a fellow nicknamed "Bozo" Williams back in 1923, well before the clown hit the airwaves.
According to a 1991 New York Times article about the dispute, Harmon floated the outlandish claim that the name "Bozo" goes back to "a book about gypsy comedians written in either the 11th or 13th century." And a subsequent letter to the Times made the equally ludicrous suggestion that "Bozo" might go back to an "obtuse" 11th-century monk from Normandy named Boso who figures in a work by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury.
More plausible etymological theories suggest bozo comes from a Spanish source, such as bozal, which could mean "simple," "stupid," or "unable to speak Spanish well." Another theory relates it to a meaning of bozo in Spanish that refers to the "peach fuzz" on the cheeks of adolescent boys. And yet another suggests that it comes from a Spanish-Dutch creole on the island of Curaçao known as Papiamento, in which boso could mean "You people" (a shortening of the Spanish second-person plural pronoun vosotros).
None of these speculations are based on firm evidence, however. While the epithet bozo did not originate with Bozo the Clown, the earliest print examples date to about 1920. Bozo crops up in a few diaries of World War I soldiers that were later published for a mass audience, in familiar contexts like "you old bozo" and "that's right, bozo."
But how did it get so familiar? Bozo might have come into circulation thanks to a precursor of Bozo the Clown: a vaudeville character named Bozo from the early 20th century. So suggests some new research by Peter Reitan on his Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog. (Reitan previously pitched in with some great research on the phrase "get one's goat.")
Reitan uncovered the history of a vaudeville act involving Edmond Hayes as "wise guy" Spike Hennessey and his sidekick "Bozo," appearing as early as 1911 in a routine where they play piano movers causing mayhem among high-society types. "Bozo" was originally played by Bobby Archer, but the character gained greater fame played by Tommy Snyder starting in 1914. The new actor became so associated with the role that he was popularly known as "Bozo" Snyder. His silent "tramp" character, played in pantomime, was said to have influenced Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.
"Bozo" was in fact a personal name among immigrants to the United States from Serbian and Croatian regions. It seems likely that vaudeville's Bozo originated from this immigrant name and stereotypes surrounding eastern Europeans (akin to the use of palooka to refer to an oafish boxer, probably related to the Polish name Paluka).
Reitan's blog provides much more historical background, and his research continues. He recently came across a 1906 notice in the New York Clipper advertises a circus performer named "The Great Bozo, Hoop Roller and Barrel Jumper." But even if there are earlier precursors, it seems quite likely that Tommy "Bozo" Snyder brought fame to the name, long before Bozo the Clown became a television staple.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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