blockbuster

This term has at least three distinct senses. The first use of blockbuster was during World War II, meaning a large aerial bomb. It was formed from the words for a city block and bust, a verb meaning to break. A blockbuster was a bomb large enough to destroy a city block. Time magazine printed this in its 29 September 1942 issue:

Inside a sturdy observation tower a mile from the exploding block busters which the Army is now testing.1

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blimp

This term for a non-rigid airship is of uncertain origin. We do know that it was coined during the First World War, but who coined it and why the rather enigmatic term blimp was chosen may never be known. Making matters worse, the various origin stories are often conflated in various sources, making sorting out the truth difficult.

First, the earliest known use of the term dates to February 1916, from Rosher’s In R.N.A.S.:

Visited the Blimps...this afternoon at Capel.

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blackguard

The exact etymology of this term for a villain is uncertain. What is known is that it is literally from black guard; it is English in origin; and it dates to at least 1532. The earliest known use of the term is from that year and appears in an account book from St. Margaret’s church in Westminster:

Item Receyvid for the lycens of iiij. torchis of the blake garde vjd.

It is not know what or who the black guard referenced in this quote was. They could have been black-uniformed guards or perhaps funerary torch bearers.

By 1535, blackguard was being used to refer to the lowest servants in a household and by 1560, it was being used to refer to attendents, dressed in black and often attending some villainous character.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t dismiss the possibility that there may literally have been a company of soldiers at Westminster called the Black Guard, but no direct evidence of this exists.

The sense of the vagabond or criminal class doesn’t appear until the 1680s. And the modern sense of a scoundrel dates to the 1730s.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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

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)

bimbo

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.

beeswax

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.

beefeater

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

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.

And:

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)

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