black box

When an airplane crashes, what follows is inevitably a search for the black box, or more accurately the two black boxes, one that records the voice conversations in the cockpit and the other that records data about the flight, such as location, speed, and altitude. The odd thing is that whenever the boxes are recovered and shown on the news, they are not black at all. Rather, they are painted bright orange for visibility at a crash site.

So why are they called black? Black box is a generic term for a piece of electronic equipment on an aircraft. The term originated in air force slang during World War II. The first black boxes were radar bomb “sights.” Eric Partridge includes this sense in his 1945 Dictionary of R.A.F. Slang. And his more comprehensive 1948 Dictionary of Force’s Slang contains the following entry:

Black box, or gen box, or simply the box. An instrument that enables a bomb-aimer to see through clouds or in the dark. (Air Force.) To many Air Force personnel, however, black box denotes a navigational instrument.1

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Bizarre was borrowed into English from French in the middle of the 17th century. The current sense of odd or fantastic has been with us since the word was introduced into English. It had that meaning in French as well, although previously in French it had the meaning of brave or like a soldier.

Where the French picked up the word is somewhat unclear. In Spanish and Portugeuse, bizarro means handsome or brave and is clearly related to the French in some way, although the French word appears before the Spanish one, so it is unlikely that the French picked up the word from Spanish. Instead, it probably comes from Italian, where bizzarro means angry, and has a root, bizza, meaning fit of anger.

There is a commonly touted etymology for bizarre that claims the word is originally from the Basque bizzarra, meaning beard. This explanation is not well supported by evidence.

Bizarre is unrelated to bazaar, which is from the Persian bazar, meaning marketplace.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories)


This term for a floozie or loose woman, especially one of low intelligence, is from the Italian bambino, or baby. It makes its English appearance in 1918, in Rosano’s Price of Honor in a bit of Italian-accented dialogue:

She flop! An’ il bimbo he break da boni.

The original meaning was a stupid, inconsequential, or contemptible person. By 1920 the floozie sense had developed. From Zeidman’s Burlesque (1920):

This Dix bimbo is a dangerous woman...a sassy girl with...more than a figure—a physique.1

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 159.


There are a couple of slang usages of beeswax, which are not related to one another.

The term, commonly used in the phrases mind your own beeswax or none of your beeswax, is an Americanism dating to 1934. It is simply an intentional malapropism for business.1

A more recent coinage is the use of beeswax as rhyming slang for income tax. It is also a play on the older rhyming slang bees and honey, meaning money. This British usage dates to the 1980s.2

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 127-28.

2New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, v. I & II, edited by Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006), 126.


This term has been around since 1610. It originally meant a well-fed servant. The more famous use in reference to the Yeoman of the Guard of the English royal household and later to the Warders of the Tower of London dates to 1671. Beefeater is quite literal in origin, being a reference to the diets of well-off and spoiled servants. It contrasts with loaf-eater, a reference to a servant who eats the bread provided by his master, a term that dates back to Old English, hláfǽta.

It is often incorrectly postulated the term comes from a supposed French word, buffetier. This alleged root, which would mean one who eats from a buffet, does not exist. Sometimes the word beaufet is presented as a transitional form, but this is simply a 17th century alternative spelling of buffet and appears later than beefeater.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Bedlam is a Middle English form of Bethlehem, referring to the Judean city traditionally reckoned as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The sense meaning madness, uproar, or confusion comes from the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London. The hospital was founded as a priory in 1247 and is first mentioned as a hospital in 1330. By 1402 it was known for housing lunatics.

In 1547 the hospital was formally incorporated as a royal foundation for the care of the insane. The modern sense of a madhouse or place of confusion and uproar comes from association with this hospital and dates to the early 16th century.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bull & bear markets

These two stock market terms appear in the early 18th century. Bear was the first to appear, referring to the practice of selling stock one does not yet own for delivery at a future date. The expectation would be that the price would fall in the meantime, enabling the speculator to buy the stock at a lower price. Such speculators were called bear-skin jobbers after the proverb to sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear. Gradually, the term took on the meaning of being generally pessimistic about stock prices. From Sir Richard Steele’s Tatler of 1709:

Being at that General Mart of Stock-Jobbers called Jonathans...he bought the bear of another officer.


I fear the Word Bear is hardly to be understood among the polite People; but I take the meaning to be, That one who ensures a Real Value upon an Imaginary Thing, is said to sell a Bear.

Bull appears a few years later, in 1714, and was almost certainly influenced by bear. From Charles Johnson’s The Country Lasses of that year:

You deal in Bears and Bulls.

There is commonly told story that the origin of these terms stems from the fighting styles of the two animals. A bear presses down on its opponents, crushing them, while a bull hooks them with its horns and lifts them skywards. This is just bunk with no evidence to support it.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bated breath

Several people have emailed me asking where bated breath comes from. Bate is a verb dating to the beginning of the 14th century meaning to deprive or to lessen; it is a clipped form of abate.

Shakespeare was the first writer we know of to use bated breath, in 1596 in The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.125:

With bated breath, and whispring humblenesse.

Like most of Shakespeare’s alleged coinages, this is probably not an invention of the Bard; his use has simply survived while the writings of earlier and lesser writers have perished.

The term is often seen as baited breath, which is not a bad case of halitosis, but rather a misspelling.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This American contribution to international cuisine actually originated in the Caribbean, and the word comes to us via Spanish from its Indian roots. The original sense of barbecue is that of a raised, wooden (later metal) framework used for either sleeping upon or curing meats. The Indians of Guiana called it a babracot and the Haitians a barbacòa. The Spanish acquired the Haitian word and it came into English from the Spanish.

The earliest English citation, used for a sleeping platform, is from 1697, in William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round The World:

And lay there all night, upon our Borbecu’s, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground.

By 1733 the word was being used for an open-air, social gathering featuring the grilling of meat. From the diary of a B. Lynde:

Fair and hot; Browne, barbacue; hack overset.

Barbecue has at least one false etymology that is commonly promulgated on the internet and elsewhere. It is claimed that it comes from the French barbe (beard) and queue (tail); the idea being that an entire pig is roasted, from head, or beard, to tail. This is simply not the origin of the word.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bandwagon, jump on the

One of the more frequent questions to this site’s discussion forum has been where the phrase jump on the bandwagon comes from. The confusion stems from the fact that the phrase survives into the 21st century while bandwagons are long gone.

In 19th and early 20th century America, a bandwagon was exactly what it sounds like, a wagon, usually horse-drawn, which carried a musical band. Bandwagons were used in circuses, to lead parades, and at political rallies. Hence to join or jump on the bandwagon was to follow the crowd, and in a political context with the connotation that one was there for the entertainment and excitement of the event, rather than from deep or firm conviction.

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