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Did Mencken coin “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 earliest example we’ve seen for “bloviate” appeared in an Ohio newspaper in the late 1830s and referred to the oratory of William Allen, a US congressman, senator, and governor from the state:

“We commend the fol’owing to the rapt perusal of all who ever had the high honor and exquisite pleasure of hearing Mr. Wm. Allen bloviate in the Court-House of this county, or on the stump in any of our highly favored precincts” (from The Scioto Gazette, March 8, 1838).

The passage was brought to our attention by Ken Liss, who comments about etymology, among other things, on his website and Twitter.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bloviate” as “to talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric; to speechify or ‘sound off.’ ”

In an etymology note, the dictionary says “bloviate” probably comes from combining the verb “blow” with the “-viate” ending of words like “deviate” and “abbreviate.”

The OED‘s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Oct. 14, 1845, issue of The Huron Reflector in Norwalk, OH:

“Peter P. Low, Esq., will with open throat reiterate the slang of the resolution passed by the County Convention, and bloviate about the farmers being taxed upon the full value of their farms, while bankers are released from taxation.”

“Bloviate” is 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). But as you can see, it didn’t originate with Mencken.

The word was a favorite of President Warren G. Harding, who was a native of Ohio and something of a bloviator himself. Mencken, who couldn’t stand Harding’s writing, describes it this way:

“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.” (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 criticized Harding’s blowhard writing style, some sources may have mistakenly credited Mencken with inventing the term “bloviate.” But as we’ve said,  it goes back much further than that.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 15, 2022.]

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