Q: My great-grandfather, Paul Jones, created the word “bloviate.” He was a magazine publisher in Topeka, KS.
A: Your ancestor had a long and impressive life, but it wasn’t long enough for him to have created the word “bloviate,” which appeared in print 18 years before he was born.
The earliest example we’ve seen 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’s earliest example of “bloviate,” 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.”
Your great-grandfather, the lawyer, publisher, and civil-rights activist Paul Jones, was born in a log cabin in 1856 “of slave parentage,” according to his obituary in The Call, an African-American weekly newspaper in Kansas City, MO. The obituary says he died on March 7, 1952, in Topeka at the age of 96.
A Dec. 19, 1902, article in The Plaindealer, an African-American weekly in Topeka, says Jones was born in Culpepper, VA, and moved with his family to Chicago at the age of nine.
He attended Northwestern University and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1880, according to the Plaindealer. He then practiced law in Chicago, Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS.
A 1948 article in The Journal of Negro History says Jones was active in Kansas politics and worked to help African-Americans who migrated from the south.
On retiring, the article says, “he began the editing of the Paul Jones Monthly, a magazine which he continued to publish until ill health forced his retirement in 1942.”
“Today, at 93, although he is now partly blind, deaf, and cannot smell, his mind is as active and alert as when a much younger man,” the article continues. “As he sits on his porch in Topeka and regales his listeners with interesting stories of his past, it is apparent that he has led a very active life.”
(From “Benjamin, or ‘Pap,’ Singleton and His Followers,” by Roy Garvin, The Journal of Negro History, January 1948.) Singleton (1809-1900) escaped slavery in Tennessee, became a civil-rights activist, and established African-American settlements in Kansas.
In a 2006 post, which we recently updated, we note that the OED 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 was a combination of the verb “blow” with the “-viate” ending of words like “deviate” and “abbreviate.”
The word was a favorite of President Warren G. Harding, who was a native of Ohio and something of a bloviator. The journalist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken couldn’t stand Harding’s writing and described 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.)
[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 15, 2022.]
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