Of the generational problem we have in this...

ONE ASPECT

November 09, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ONE ASPECT of the generational problem we have in this country is language. We don't all mean the same thing by the same word.

Take "bozo."

On Oct. 29, George Bush referred to Bill Clinton and Albert Gore Jr. as "these two bozos."

The next day, Bill Clinton suggested that was okay with him. "Bozo makes people laugh," he said, adding that President Bush's economic policies have been making people sad.

Clinton thought Bush was invoking Bozo the Clown. But surely the president was using the word in its earlier sense. Here is the definition from the Dictionary of American Slang:

"A man; fellow; guy; esp. a large, rough man or one with more brawn than brains. 1934: 'Drive the heap, bozo!' Chandler, Finger Man."

That would be Raymond Chandler, the tough guy detective novelist of the 1930s and 1940s.

James T. Farrell, another novelist of that era, used bozo to mean a thug, as the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang notes.

The New Dictionary of American Slang also defines bozo as "a fellow, a man, esp a muscular type with a meager brain."

But somewhere along the way, the Bozo the Clown influence began to be felt. Webster's New World Dictionary of American English, third college edition, expands the definition thusly:

"1 a fellow; guy, 2 a jerk, fool, etc."

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, second college edition, adds "a dunce." And my favorite bedside table reading, Slang and Euphemism: A Dictionary of Oaths, Curses, Insults, Sexual Slang and Metaphor, Racial Slurs, Drug Talk, Homosexual Lingo and Related Matters, adds "a clown."

Bozo the Clown was originally a character on Capitol Records' "Children's Record Reader." That was back in the 1940s. In the late 1950s or early 1960s a man, fellow or guy named Larry Harmon began syndicating a children's television show with Bozo the Clown as the main character. Each local station would use its own Bozo. I think it was Stu Kerr here. Usually he was a lovable, clever sort and more silly than stupid.

(There is no agreement on the origin of the word. Some experts just give up. Others trace it to different sound-alike Spanish words for "stupid" and "untamed" and "harness" and also "down growing on the cheeks of youth.")

Ah, well, a new generation is taking over. The sun also rises, etc. That's okay. That's fine. But given the fact that the new president grew up on Bozo the Clown rather than Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Farrell's Studs Lonigan -- well, thank God the Cold War is over.

Some analysts say President Bush's calling his opponents bozos was a factor in his losing the election. Was it?

Thursday: Do campaigns matter?

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