Saturday, September 12, 2015

`To Confound, Bewilder, Nonplus'

My days as a substitute copy editor were brief and widely spaced. I liked the job for short spells because I’m tidy by nature and find satisfaction in cleaning up a mess. Needless words are offensive, like cream in coffee or catsup on scrambled eggs. In a file cabinet I found an issue of the newspaper I was working for in 1982, when I was subbing on the copy desk. The headline in question, of course, is unsigned, but I remember writing it. On the front of the second section we ran a column of briefs devoted to regional news. In this case, two guys in a nearby town broke into an appliance store and loaded their truck with televisions and microwave ovens. They also triggered a silent alarm and the cops stopped them a couple of blocks away. My headline: “Fleeing felons flummoxed.” 

The OED defines flummox as to “bring to confusion; to ‘do for’, cause to fail; to confound, bewilder, nonplus,” and says the word is “probably of English dialectal origin,” possibly from flummocks, “to maul, mangle.” The dictionary adds that flummox “seems to be onomatopoeic, expressive of the notion of throwing down roughly and untidily.” It also contains a nice echo of lummox, a useful description of most felons. The earliest usage cited by the OED is from 1837, when Dickens used it in Chapter 33 of The Pickwick Papers: “And my ’pinion is, Sammy, that if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it.” Another source credits Dickens with coining the word, but that remains unconfirmed. 

Seeing my headline again after all these years was gratifying. No doubt I’m the only person in the world who can confirm authorship -- just another mute offering. A few years later, at a different newspaper in a different state, I was again subbing on the copy desk. A car collided with a truck pulling a loaded horse trailer. No one, human or equine, was killed but some of both received minor injuries. My sub-head: “Horses in stable condition.”


Subbuteo said...

"Fleeing felons flummoxed" - It's easy for you to say that!

Nige said...

And "horses in stable condition"!
John Ashbery, to his credit, uses "lummox" (in The Skaters?) - 'You remind me of some lummox I used to know'. He also uses the excellent "conniption fit" somewhere. Funny what sticks in your mind...