The Word


Is Obama speaking in code?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
February 10, 2008

BROWSING THE LANGUAGE news online recently, I found a lively debate underway at the MSNBC politics blog. The news item sparking the discussion was a note on Barack Obama's colloquial language; he was already telling voters not to be bamboozled or hoodwinked by his opponents, not to fall for the okey-doke. And in St. Louis, the MSNBC reporter said (mistakenly, it now appears), he added hornswoggled to the list.

Some of us would be happy to hear more colorful language on the campaign trail. But a number of blog commenters had a problem with bamboozle and hoodwink. “Some of these terms are straight out of Malcolm X or Jesse Jackson speeches,” said one. “But it is OK if Obama plays up his race, right?”

Now, Obama’s “okey-doke,” meaning “con” – mid-20th-century slang – is indeed primarily black English, my dictionaries say. But what do bamboozle and hoodwink, those showy synonyms for “deceive,” have to do with race?

Further searching unearthed the answer, a theory that has percolated in the Democratic blogosphere since the candidates’ spat last month over who was playing the race card. Obama’s verbs, according to this analysis, were chosen to echo a speech by the eponymous hero of Spike Lee’s 1992 “Malcolm X,” and thus to send a secret message.

Nobody would deny that politicians use “coded” language – “dog whistle politics,” as it’s called -- to reassure certain constituencies. In the 2004 campaign, President Bush’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision -- which denied citizenship to African-Americans (and was overturned by the Thirteenth Amendment) -- was read as signaling his intentions toward Roe v. Wade.

But why would Obama need a coded racial message? I can see that Spike Lee’s film use of bamboozled might resonate with African-American voters, especially since Lee titled a subsequent movie “Bamboozled.” But isn’t Malcolm X, the controversial black separatist, the last person the “uniter” candidate would purposely invoke?

I put those questions to Mike Plugh, who had highlighted the Obama-Malcolm echo at his thoughtful blog Communicative Action. I pointed out that the Malcolm in question was probably the movie character, since I couldn’t find the real man using bamboozle. (Google’s book search finds Malcolm using “deceived,” “brainwashed,” and “fooled,” but not bamboozled. And his only “hoodwinked” refers to young hustlers tricking older ones.)

After several rounds of correspondence, Plugh summarized his slightly revised view: He still thinks Obama was echoing (consciously or not) the movie speech, to say "They've done this to us for centuries, people, and I'm going to remind you of it by quoting Malcolm X” – the idealized character, not the real man.

Maybe so; that’s as far as political parsemanship took us. But what interested me even more were the fantastic ideas some contributors put forth about the verbs in question.

Is hoodwink related to the KKK? one suspicious commenter ventured. No. Hoodwink is first recorded in 1562, some 300 years before the debut of the Klan. It meant, at first, “to blindfold” – “We'll have no Cupid hoodwink'd with a scarf,” wrote Shakespeare -- and later “to fool, deceive.”

As for bamboozle, it was the trendiest new slang in London back when Jonathan Swift denounced it, in 1710. It may or may not have been a favorite of the real Malcolm X, but Disraeli used it, and Walter Lippmann, and Frank Zappa, and, more recently, Chris Matthews.

A couple of blog commenters insisted that the combination of hoodwink and bamboozle was the giveaway; where else but in the “Malcolm X” speech would you find those “rare” words together?

Well, in Lord Greville’s memoir: “Palmerston never intended anything but to hoodwink his colleagues, bamboozle the French, and gain time” (1885). And in H.L. Mencken: “He does not merely tell how politicians hoodwink, bamboozle and prey upon the boobs; he shows precisely how” (1928). And even in “Some Facts about Treating Railroad Ties” (1912): “ ‘Quick high vacuum’ . . . and other imaginary words, intended to mystify, hoodwink and bamboozle the uninitiated.”

As for hornswoggle, the MSNBC reporter apparently misheard. The video of Obama’s speech shows an audience member suggesting another word, after Obama’s bamboozle and hoodwink, but the senator doesn’t catch it: “Cornswogger?” he asks. “Is that what they’re doing?”

Hornswoggle is at least uncontroversial; it’s an American invention, first recorded in Kentucky in 1829, but later associated with Western ways and cowboy movies.

Fifty years ago, for instance, California congressman Clair Engle said he was rewording his charge that the Secretary of the Interior was bamboozling Engle’s committee. He was changing the word to “hornswoggle,” he explained, because it was a Western term: “It has 'horn' in it. 'Bamboozle' is an Eastern word. It has 'booze' in it. 'Hornswoggle' has a lighter connotation and may be less offensive.”

Sounds like an analysis you might read on a blog today -- except that Engle knew when he was making stuff up.

E-mail Jan Freeman at For past columns, go to

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the "Word" column in last Sunday's Ideas section, citing an MSNBC political blog, incorrectly stated that Barack Obama had used the word "hornswoggle" in a St. Louis campaign speech. The word was spoken by an audience member and not the candidate.

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