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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Comeback for Bimbroglio?

I was trying to think of a word to describe the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Kelleytwin-Allen-ShirtlessFBIGuy situation and couldn't.  Clusterf*ck was good when it first came out (I first heard it in 1985), but it's boring and overused now.  Kerfuffle is too self-consciously silly.

So I thought of "bimbroglio."  It's not really a fair label for the current situation as we know it, but at a certain point in time, we might get enough information to definitively label some of the female players "bimbos" under any modern definition, and some of the male players "bimbos" under the more traditional definition.  But given the modern definition, we would almost certainly be accused of sexism, and rightly so -- the problem is not with the usage of the word, it's with the word itself.

When I first started hearing the term "bimbo" applied to women in the 1980s, I was confused, because I thought the term generally referred to men.  That's how PG Wodehouse used it in Laughing Gas, I'm pretty sure, which was my first and until-then-apparently-only exposure to the word.  Wikipedia explains that "Use of this term began in the United States as early as 1919, where it was used as a slang term for an unintelligent or brutish male," that by 1929 a dictionary gave "woman" as the definition, and that now it generally means a woman who "acts in a sexually promiscuous manner," or is "physically attractive but is perceived to have a low intelligence or poor education."  All of that is consistent with my sheltered upbringing.  In the pre-Internet days, it generally took many years for the changing meaning of words to catch up with me.

[Aside:  Ah.  I found a Wodehouse quote on-line.  I can't tell if it's from Laughing Gas (which was copyrighted in 1936, and is therefore not in the public domain and thus not available for searching),  But it uses "bimbo" the way I remember:

"`The moment my fingers clutch a pen,' said Leila Yorke, `a great change comes over me. I descend to the depths of goo which you with your pure mind wouldn't believe possible. I write about stalwart men, strong but oh so gentle, and girls with wide grey eyes and hair the colour of ripe wheat, who are always having misunderstandings and going to Africa. The men, that is. The girls stay at home and marry the wrong bimbos. But there's a happy ending. The bimbos break their necks in the hunting field and the men come back in the last chapter and they and the girls get together in the twilight, and all around is the scent of English flowers and birds singing their evensong in the shrubbery. Makes me shudder to think of it."

End Aside.]

So at this point, we can almost say that Paula Broadwell meets the first modern definition ("acts in a sexually promiscuous manner") if it's not too prudish to say that having a single adulterous affair reflects promiscuity.  I'm not sure that it does; in some cases (where the marriage was loveless or arranged, and the affair involved a true meeting of souls), "promiscuity" would not apply.  But we don't know enough about this situation to say one way  or another.  Paula B. doesn't meet the second definition, because although she is attractive, she is also very well educated and has superior intelligence.

Jill Kelley might be a match for the second definition, because it doesn't look like she went to college.  I don't think we know enough about the emails to General Allen (yet) to know if she acted promiscuously, but she is certainly a candidate for the first definition as well.

Jill Kelley's twin sister might fit the definition, but she's educated (a lawyer), and I have no information (yet) on whether she might be considered "promiscuous."

Nevertheless, it's possible that any use of the term "bimbo" is by definition offensive because (even though the term originally referred to men) there is no corresponding derogatory term for a sexually promiscuous or good-looking-but-poorly-educated man.  We don't call Don Draper a "himbo" or a "mimbo" (although of course we could), we just say he is "cool," and irresistible to women.

So please just consider this post an account of one backwoods entomologist's (that's a joke -- I like insects AND words) groping for the right phrase to describe a particular situation.  I don't think "bimbroglio" is the answer, but I thought I'd share my research and thinking on the matter.

Of course, nothing anyone does is original anymore (pass that on to the Patent Office -- they need to hear it!).  As of this minute, Google gives 453 hits to the word "bimbroglio." Apparently, it was coined in the late 1990s by the New Republic to describe Lewinsky-gate and it never caught on.  William Safire explains this at p. 164 of his 2004 book "No Uncertain Terms" (which shows up on the second page of hits, after a bunch of somewhat Spanish/Italian-sounding hits, and a few scattered references to Clinton-Lewinsky).  It was fleetingly used to describe a Herman Cain affair, and one 2008 blog deemed it "uninspired" and "sexist" as a description for Bill and Monica.  I haven't seen any hit on it to describe the current affair, so this post will be the first [if that's what it's doing] (and the 454th Google hit overall).

It seems to fit better here, just because there are so many potential bimbos (especially if you count the men) in the mix.

Let's see if it catches on.  If it does, then we'll know something has changed between 1997 and today, and probably not for the better.  In fact, right now, the domain name "" is available.  What an innocent age we live in!  Let's see how long that lasts.

I stress that I am not endorsing the use of "bimbroglio" to describe this, or any situation.  I should probably buy the domain name right now to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.  As above, the term "bimbo" perpetuates the double standard for sexuality between the sexes (does that make sense?!), i.e. by demeaning women for behavior, which, when engaged in by men, is often glorified.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, it's now up to 475 hits. So there have been 22 new hits for "bimbroglio" since I posted this two days ago. Clearly not a word that's on the tip of very many people's tongues. I'll put regular updates in the comments here, so eventually someone can graph the progress (if any) of the term.