words: Buffoon

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The Independent Online

INTERNATIONAL relations were at snapping point in Rawalpindi last Sunday when England's cricket captain, fresh from his duck against South Africa, called an importunate Pakistani journalist a buffoon. Captain Atherton apologised but you can see why Pakistanis were upset. A buffoon is someone who can't be taken seriously. This would have been no insult, however, in the 16th century when we first took the word from the French - indeed, any self-respecting buffoon would have been pretty upset if he had been taken seriously.

A buffa in Italian was a joke (hence opera buffa, comic opera) and the French buffon was someone paid to make them. Bouffer (buffare in Italian) meant to puff. Some etymologists have explained the connection by pointing out that jokes are light and airy, others that comics had a habit of puffing out their cheeks, a less likely story. Anyway, they evidently gave as much offence then as some comics do today, and it wasn't long before a buffoon became any sort of vulgar jester.

The equivalent native word was fool which originally implied simplicity rather than lack of brains. Court jesters came to be called fools because it was their apparent naivety that gave them their licence to be frank with kings. We suffer them less gladly now; if Mike Atherton had called that journalist a fool there really would have been trouble. He could have got away with saying the man was acting the fool, like an Elizabethan player. Apart from that, only the verb, as in fooling around keeps the earlier meaning of someone pretending to be stupider than they really are. The noun is unforgiving: a fool can't help being a fool, nature made him that way. A buffoon, on the other hand, might have an excuse - he was only fooling.