Thursday, December 5, 2013

Perplexed from A to Z

The words I have in mind are aghast, bamboozled, bewildered, flustered, rattled, uncanny, weirded-, and zoned out—all produced, in unalphabetical sequence, when I got to wondering about the meaning of bamboozled.  

These words are linked in turn to 1) ghosts, 2) baboons, 3) wilderness, 4) bustling around, 5) noise, 6) knowledge (its absence), 7) fate, and 8) drugs. My source for dispelling my perplexity is the Online Etymology Dictionary—except for the last two.

Aghast means to be terrified in Old English, the verb being gaestan which itself is derived from gaest, read ghost or spirit. The word is still very much with us, but ghosts are rarely involved. A quick search yielded two recent headlines: Was Norman Rockwell gay? Family aghast at biography; Kashmir Lawyers Aghast Over Conditions of Kishtwar Jail Inmates.

Bamboozle seems to be a word welded together from the Scottish word for “to perplex,” bombaze, and the French embabouiner, meaning “to make a baboon of.” The Scotts, here, seem to me to have the greater voices since, to be bamboozled, is to be bewildered—a word derived from the feeling of being lost in the wilds.

To be flustered has its origins in excessive activity—a kind of fuss, stir, or commotion. It comes from Scandinavian sources, as in the Icelandic flaustra,  “to bustle.” The word came to be linked to activity while being under the influence of drink—but that original meaning has been widened to being agitated by something which is never altogether pleasant.

To be rattled is to be distracted, by noise or commotion, thus related to being flustered. Rattled is what I always am when I see bright lights, men, and guitars and my flustered finger can’t find the mute button fast enough. Uncanny, curiously, is simply the state in which effective knowledge is denied us—thus when the supernatural intrudes. Canny is to be knowing and therefore careful; but if ghosts appear or strange noises rattle us in the dark—and we’re therefore aghast—why then, in retrospect, we’ll describe the situation as uncanny—because we didn’t know what to do.

Low on the list but not yet last, being weirded out is defined for me by our Dictionary of American Slang (DAS) (2007 and therefore, presumably, quite obsolete): it describes weird out as “To become or make hallucinatory or intoxicated; to feel a loss of reality because of a strange experience.” That’s the modern take. Back in the Long Ago weird meant fate, as in the Proto-Germanic wurthis. Then, as now, I would insist, what comes around and then goes around in turn is often quite enough to weird us out. And that is fate.

Zoned out? DAS describes that condition as “Intoxicated with narcotics: HIGH.” Yes. We are in Orwell age of 1984, where HIGH means LOW. And if you’re missing a word for confusion starting with C, confusion will do. And if you’re missing an S, zoned out can also be spaced out—lifted high by the same fuel.

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