ARL Archive · Know Your Words

“And the Blunder Goes to …”

ddt

Despite my best efforts to ignore it, I’ve been thinking about the mess up at the Oscars and, in particular, the use of the word blunder to describe it. I mean, what, if anything, makes something a blunder as opposed to a mistake, a boner, a boo-boo, a goof, so on and so forth. Are they all just synonyms or do they all have specific meanings?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, blunder (which can be a noun or a verb) means:

Verb:
1. To mix up or mingle confusedly
2. To confound (in one’s mind) stupidly
3. To move, act, or perform blindly or stupidly
4. To deal blindly or stupidly
5. To utter thoughtlessly, stupidly, or by a blunder, to blurt out
6. To make a stupid and gross mistake in doing anything
7. To mismanage

Noun:
1.) Confusion, bewilderment, trouble, disturbance, clamor
2.) A gross mistake; an error due to stupidity or carelessness

Since mistake is used in some of these definitions, it’s safe to say a blunder is a type of mistake (there’s the answer to that question).

Alright, so that’s what it means. Now where does it come from? The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says this of blunder:

Blunder [Middle English]  Blunder conjures up  an image of someone not quite seeing what is physically there as an obstacle, or not quite perceiving implications; the word is  probably Scandinavian in origin and related to blind. A compound associated with blunder is blunderbuss, a mid 17th century alteration of Dutch donderbus, literally ‘thunder gun.’

Thunder gun, huh? Well, the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins doesn’t have anything to say about that, but it does link blunder and blind.

Blunder When blunder first entered the language, it meant ‘stumble around blindly, bumping into things,’ which gives a clue to its possible ultimate connection with blind. Its probable ultimate source was Old Norse blundra ‘shut one’s eyes,’ the forerunner of Swedish blunda and Norwegian blunda, and very likely a descendant of Indo-European bhlendhod, from which blind comes. The first record of the modern sense ‘foolish mistake’ comes in Edward Phillip’s The New World of English Words (1706).

Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English also links blunder and blind, but not before associating it with blend.

blend, to mix, hence n; obs blend, to dazzle or blind, adj. hence noun and verb; blunder. 1. If we set out from the predominant meaning, ‘to render dark, (hence) to confuse,’ the dark is light enough, and the path becomes clear: ‘to blend’ (mingle) comes, through Middle English blenden, from Old Norse blanda…. [You get the idea.]

This seems like a stretch to me, although there’s no question that the envelopes containing the winner for “best picture” were mingled, which made the organizers look stupid and foolish, and culminated in not just a mistake, but a blunder.

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