In the Beetle Bailey comic strip, the old addled General Halftrack has a dumb blonde secretary with really dangerous curves. Her name, of course, is Miss Buxley. Mort Walker was punning on the word buxom, which is now used only to describe a woman—and not every woman, either!

Word of the Day It wasn’t always so. In Paradise Lost, Milton describes Satan as flying through the buxom air.  What could he have meant?

We need to return to the Old English: bugsam.  The second part of the word is our suffix some: winsome, lonesome, handsome: it is the same suffix as the German –sam: langsam.  It suggests that something is really characterized by what precedes: it’s the real deal. So what did the bug- mean?  Was something bugsam full of bugs?

No. The Old English verb bugan meant to bend.  The old g’s at the ends of syllables often turned, by Middle English, into the semivowels w and y, so we have quite a few words in English that have to do with bending, that have those sounds at the end of a little word beginning with b: bow (both kinds), bough, bay, bight.  Some people call a bay window a bow window:  the idea is the same. German had many of the same words: so we end up with Yiddish bagel.

So something that is buxom is pliant, yielding—-it gives way, it bends. But I trust Miss Buxley didn’t.

Articles by Anthony Esolen

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