The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you dumbfounded?

Q: The verb “dumbfound” leaves me dumbfounded. How does combining “dumb” and “found” give us a word that means to bewilder?

A: “Dumbfound” began life in the 17th century as a combination of “dumb” (speechless) and “confound” (to surprise and confuse). It was originally spelled “dumfound,” and is still sometimes seen that way.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “dumbfound” as to “strike dumb; to confound, confuse; to nonplus.”

In its entry for “confound,” the dictionary notes that the verb could be “expressed colloquially by dumfound, flabbergast, etc.”

The earliest OED example for “dumbfound” is from the Scottish author Thomas Urquhart’s 1694 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of novels by François Rabelais:

“I beseech you never Dum-found or Embarrass your Heads with these idle Conceits.”

The next Oxford citation uses “dumb” rather than “dum,” but continues to hyphenate the word:

“He has but one eye, and we are on his blind side; I’ll dumb-found him” (from The Souldiers Fortune, a 1681 comedy by the English playwright Thomas Otway).

The first OED example for “dumbfound” spelled without a hyphen is from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1762): “To cramp and dumbfound his opponents.”

And here’s a passive example from a March 27, 1861, letter by Charles Darwin: “I cannot wriggle out of it; I am dumbfounded.”

The only Oxford example for the word used as an adjective is from a March 27, 1815, letter by the Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore:

“I am not at all surprised by the dum-founded fascination that seizes people at such daring.” (We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Napoleon’s return to Paris from exile on the island of Elba.)

As for the etymology here, the verb “confound” is ultimately derived from confundĕre, classical Latin for to mix together, mix up, or confuse.

The adjective “dumb” meant mute or speechless when it showed up with the same spelling in Old English. There are similar words in Old Norse and other Germanic languages.

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