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