Buffaloed by the verb buffalo

On a recent mini-binge of James M. Cain novels, I finished a 5-in-1 set from Picador: two I’d read years ago – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity – and three others I soon raced through: Serenade, Mildred Pierce, and The Butterfly.

Cover image of "The Five Great Novels of James M Cain", published by Picador. Cover is dominated by a black and white photo of a man lying on the ground, his hat displaced; he appears to have been shotCain, in a preface to The Butterfly, reacts to some criticisms of his work, such as that he took his style from Hammett (‘I have read less than twenty pages of Mr Dashiell Hammett in my whole life’).* A blurb from the NYRB hints at his formidable legacy: ‘It is no accident that movies based on three of them helped to define the genre known as film noir: or that Camus used Postman as his model for L’Étranger.’

But the purpose of this post is to examine the vivid verb used, and mentioned, in the title. About midway through The Butterfly, a character’s unexpected appearance prompts the following exchange:

‘Jess, what is she doing here?’

‘It’s got me buffaloed.’

We can safely infer the meaning of buffalo (v.) here as synonymous with stumped or perplexed. But the word has a range of subtly related senses that come from our perceptions of the animal’s nature. The OED defines it as North American slang meaning ‘to overpower, overawe, or constrain by superior force or influence; to outwit, perplex’. Its first citation is from the Cincinnati Enquirer, 1903.

The ‘perplex’ sense is apparent also in William Raine’s Bucky O’Connor (1910): ‘O’Connor admitted that he was “buffaloed” when he attempted an analysis of his unusual feeling.’ Clarence Mulford’s Coming of Cassidy (1913) offers the ‘overpower, intimidate’ sense: ‘It ain’t his fault that Waffles buffaloed you fellers out of th’ Hills, is it?’

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines buffalo similarly, as ‘to overawe, to frighten, to confuse, to pressurize, to threaten’, and supplies an older first citation (1878–79) and a broader selection of subsequent examples, though note the exclusively US sources:

A selection of citations for "buffalo" (v.) from Green's Dictionary of Slang, all from US texts, between 1878-9 and 2011

This helps unlock the linguistically infamous sentence

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

which despite appearances is grammatical and meaningful. Along with the ‘bully, threaten’ sense of buffalo (v.), at #5 and #6, it also contains the noun buffalo and the place name Buffalo. Wikipedia helpfully recasts it: Buffalo from Buffalo that other buffalo from Buffalo bully [themselves] bully buffalo from Buffalo. Still buffaloed?

Update:

Here’s a fine example from Kill Bill 2:

Image from "Kill Bill 2": Michael Madsen, in blue shirt and mullet, sits on an old couch looking pensively at a drink he holds, and says: "I never saw anybody buffalo Bill the way she buffaloed Bill."

*

* That’s right: less than twenty. Nothing wrong with it.

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24 Responses to Buffaloed by the verb buffalo

  1. John Cowan says:

    Around the New Yorker offices, James M. Caen was known as Dizzy Jim (as opposed to James Thurber who was Daffy Jim).

  2. astraya says:

    In Australia, I have never encountered ‘buffalo’ as a verb (something to do with the total lack of buffalos here, I think), and haven’t ever encountered it in all the US movies, tv shows, book etc I’ve ever seen or read. Whenever I had seen this factlet about Buffalo buffalo, I had wondered whether people actually *use* buffalo as a verb. Apparently yes, but not often.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s my impression too. I’ve never heard it spoken, that I recall, and have seldom seen it in print. A search on Google Books returns 19,400 hits, which probably overstates the actual count but still indicates a healthy minor currency.

    • astraya says:

      The Northern Territory actually has feral water buffalo, imported from south-east Asia, but they don’t feature much in the popular imagination.

  3. Worth noting that this particular sentence depends on “buffalo” (n.) having a zero plural, which many but by no means all speakers employ. That’s probably what makes it difficult for many people to parse; with a regular plural, either the nouns or the verbs would be orthographically distinct.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    Bev Rowe, via email, provides a related example that repeats the word cod, using its noun and verb forms. Though syntactically simpler than the buffalo line, it is, in theory, extensible ‘to an infinite degree’.

  5. Mark Gallagher says:

    Is it ironic that the image that this singularly American usage conjures is actually the American bison (Bison bison)?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Maybe. Laurence Urdang’s Dictionary of Differences points to the potential for confusion:

      Although it is properly called the American bison, Americans and Canadians call the species found in North America (formerly in great profusion on the plains, today seen only in reserves) buffalo; taxonomists prefer that the name buffalo be reserved for species found in Africa, like the Cape buffalo.

  6. That verb is totally new to me! Thank you.

  7. David Johnson says:

    Growing up in Nebraska in the 50s and 60s, it was a commonplace expression for us, easily understood and unremarkable, though the sense of overpowering a person was missing. Being buffaloed, one was not so much overpowered as stampeded, nudged into doing something against your better judgment, which could be a metaphorical source for the expression.

    The buffalo were sad, nostalgic figures to us, of a piece with the Native American tragedy. Known for their passivity, millions of the creatures fell before the rifles of hunters who walked right up them. Our pioneer ancestors never had cause to fear them except when they were stampeding.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the personal report, David. The form of the influence implied by buffalo – whether nudged, intimidated, or overpowered – probably varies a bit from one dialect, person, and context to another. Even so, the sense is of one type, and distinct enough from the ‘confused, perplexed’ sense that I’m surprised the two are not listed separately in the dictionaries cited. The story of the animals themselves is a very sad one.

  8. synergetical says:

    I presume that the variation in plurals is along the lines of sporting vs non-sporting uses of animals in the UK, where a child would go to see the pheasants in the zoo, but a gamekeeper would be feeding pheasant for the shoot.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    As I read this I was reminded of our “gobsmacked” not quite the same but close.

    XO
    WWW

  10. “There were a number of other fast horses on the road, but their owners seemed so withered up with cold and so closely buffaloed and blanketed that they refrained from speeding their nags.”

    Headline: Horse Notes; Article Type: News/Opinion
    New York Herald (New York, New York) • 12-02-1868 • Page 3, col. e, Am. Hist. News.

  11. MWarhol says:

    Also, and only tangentially relevant, the the old joke:

    What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
    You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo.

    Imagine the word “basin” (something you might wash your hands in) pronounced with a Cockney accent. Sounds like “bison”.

    I know, if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. But my dog thinks it’s funny, and he has no nose.

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