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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | journalese | “pontificate,” “go on and on,” “speechify”)

Not a new word. “Bloviate” appeared in Farmer & Henley’s late 19th-century slang compendium, and Google Books can show you examples from the 1850’s. The word enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1920’s, when it was made famous by President Warren Harding, known for his shaky grasp of the King’s English. For a few decades after that, it was almost always credited to Harding, like “normalcy” (a word Harding also failed to invent). By the sixties, the word was little used and declared obsolete in some quarters. Yet it never went completely dormant or abandoned its place in the political reporter’s bag of tricks. For example, the New York Times’s legendary R.W. Apple: “But nowhere, to use H.L. Mencken’s word, do they bloviate so relentlessly as in the Supreme Soviet” (October 26, 1980). It does sound like a Mencken word, doesn’t it? It does not appear in the fourth edition of The American Language, however, and if he used it to lampoon Harding, so did everyone else, including Harding himself. See the three links below for further commentary:

After 1990, the word crept back into common use, mainly in political reporting. This is noteworthy because before Harding, “bloviate” had no special association with politicians and could be applied to anyone who liked to hear the sound of his own voice. Michael Colton, in the New York Observer (March 5, 1999), posited a New York Times conspiracy to promote the word, citing a surge of occurrences in the good gray paper, led by political columnist Frank Rich. There may have been something to it; LexisNexis shows a 25-fold increase in hits from the 1990’s to the 2000’s, and the numbers since 2010 continue the upward trend. Enough people like the word to have given it legs in the last decade or two. “The Bloviator” has become mildly popular as an epithet, applied to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Alec Baldwin, Bill O’Reilly, Ted Kennedy — it’s not a compliment.

It’s always meant the same thing, and we all know what it means. Speak at length and high volume, with a side order of rodomontade. Elevated diction is not required; repetition rides alongside. Is it possible to bloviate intelligently? The two dictionaries on my shelf willing to define the word at all give “Orate windily and verbosely” (Webster’s Third) and “Discourse in a pompous and boastful manner” (American Heritage). (The word took up residence in the OED Online in 2004: “To talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric; to speechify or ‘sound off’.”) Neither gloss rules out saying something sensible that advances the discussion, but we generally employ the term as a weapon, not a grudging compliment. The art of bloviating entails a lot of empty words and careless (or non-existent) arguments. On the other hand, there’s nothing necessarily unethical about bloviating. While using lots of words is one way to bamboozle an audience, it’s not inherently deceptive.

“Bloviate” calls to mind two words, both closely related: “hot air” and “blowhard.” You don’t hear people talk about “hot air” much any more, but in my youth that was a standard dismissal of most political speeches: “a lot of hot air.” “Blowhard,” also an Americanism, seems to have started to appear in quantity right around 1850, although a few older citations have been found. It’s not hard to imagine a connection between “blowhard” and “bloviate,” but I haven’t done the research necessary to demonstrate it.

We’ve seen a handful of such survivors before — words that have existed for a long time but become widely used of late, terms that seem to have established — at last! — a permanent beachhead. “Hurtful” is one example; “overthink” and “ramp up” also qualify. They’re not all cut from the same cloth, of course; “bloviate,” less than 200 years old and never notably respectable, stands as a newcomer next to the others, and its history is a little different. But if there’s a freestanding reason for the sharp rise in its use in the last fifteen years, it eludes me. Did politicians suddenly become more fatuous, air-headed, arrogant, or loquacious at the turn of the millennium? Not as far as I can tell. It may have more to do with writers (and Lord knows we always seem to have too many of THOSE) always on the lookout for new ways to say familiar things. If a new expression sounds cute, funny, or pungent, it may make the team and start to bust out all over. I think that’s what’s happened to “bloviate.”


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