Printable Version
Pronunciation: bêf-ê-lo Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb

Meaning: 1. To intimidate by a show of authority, to overawe. 2. To confuse, perplex, bewilder. 3. To outwit, hoodwink, fool, gull, deceive.

Notes: Today we are focusing on the verb to buffalo. It comes from the noun buffalo, of course. The North American bison, known to everyone in North America as the buffalo, had a reputation of standing its ground when attacked. The herd circles its young and vulnerable, and staunchly challenges all challengers. This is the characteristic that is captured in the original sense of today's verb.

In Play: Buffalo or Bison?This is one of those words that are used so seldom that their meanings hazy. We think we can detect three. The first sense is exemplified here: "Ally Katz wasn't buffaloed by Norman Conquest into becoming another of his conquests." Here is the second sense: "The math professor gave his class a problem that had them all buffaloed—including himself, as he found out when asked for the answer." The third meaning of this word seems to be the one expressed in this sentence: "He buffaloed his way into the company, claiming credentials he didn't have."

Word History: Today's Good Word came from the noun buffalo which, in turn, came from a Romance language, either Italian buffalo (bufalo), or Portuguese or Spanish búfalo. All these words came from Late Latin bufalus, classical Latin bubalus "antelope, buffalo". Latin came by the word from Greek boubalos, a reduplication of bous "cow". The original Proto-Indo-European word was something like gwou- "cow, bull", which explains how it could become cow in English. Apparently as it passed through the Germanic languages the [gw] did not become [b] as it did in ancient Greek but, like all [g] sounds, [k], hence English cow ([kau]). One final note: bugle was originally bugle horn back when bugle meant "wild or young ox". This word originated in Old French as bugle, from Latin buculus "young bull". So, it is no coincidence that horn has two meanings referring both to the musical instrument and to the protrusions on the heads of ungulates. Our ancient ancestors started out blowing on cow horns. (We owe our gratitude today to Mary-Alice Boulter, who didn't have to buffalo us into accepting her recommendation.)

Dr. Goodword,

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