The Grammarphobia Blog

Did Mencken coin the word “bloviate”?

Q: I see the word “bloviate” whenever I pick up a newspaper. I’ve heard that it was created by H.L. Mencken in reference to Warren G. Harding. Is there more to the story?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “bloviate” as to “discourse at length in a pompous or boastful manner.” It’s a wonderful word—the very sound of it suggests terms like “blowhard” and “windbag.” It’s one of those humorous mock-Latin formations (like “absquatulate” and others), in this case formed around “blow” in the sense of “boast.” But it didn’t originate with Mencken as you suggest.

The word is an Americanism, probably originating in Ohio in the mid-19th century, and was a favorite of President Warren G. Harding, who was a native of Ohio and something of a bloviator himself. Mencken couldn’t stand Harding’s writing, and said of him: “… he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.” (The quotation comes from a 1921 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun entitled “Gamalielese.” Gamaliel was Harding’s middle name.)

Because Harding is associated with the word “bloviate,” and because Mencken famously criticized Harding’s blowhard writing style, some sources may have mistakenly credited Mencken with inventing the term “bloviate.” But it goes back further than that.