bloops and bloopers (radio, film, baseball)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Dec 23 08:35:28 UTC 2004

More on "bloops" and "bloopers", focusing on the accidental kind...

On Wed, 22 Dec 2004 02:53:54 -0500, Benjamin Zimmer
<bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU> wrote:
>Los Angeles Times, Dec 15, 1935, p. III-1, col. 2
>But some of the nabobs of the films began collecting celluloid records of
>the "bloops" of which the screen players were guilty in reciting their
>lines, and so most of them now play safe with antics and verbal outbreaks
>that have become both unique and amusing.
>[So "bloop" was an early version of "blooper" in the sense of "blunder"
>(OED2 1947).  Above article also uses "blow-up" with the same sense.]

It's intriguing that this article ("Stars' 'Blow-ups' in Lines Provide
Hilarious Moments") gives "bloops" and "blow-ups" as synonyms for actors'
blunders, given their phonetic similarity.  There are various other cites
for "blow(-)up" referring to on-camera gaffes in the late '30s and early
'40s.  Here is one that also uses "bloop" as a transitive verb:

(Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal, May 26, 1940, p. D7, col. 5
Allyn Joslyn blew up five times in a row on a scene in which he was to
bawl out Louise Beavers for forgetting her lines. The line he blooped each
time was: "Can you remember a single line in the script?"

I don't think that this sense of "bloop" (and "blooper") could have
derived from "blow-up", since "bloop" was already in use to describe all
sorts of unwanted and unpleasant noises of the technological age, from
radio interference to the sound created by badly spliced film.  Perhaps
the actors' goofs were first called "bloops" and this was reanalyzed as
"blow-ups" later on?

Here is another example of accidental "bloop" as a transitive verb:

Los Angeles Times, Feb 3, 1936, p. II-9, col. 1
The bugler at Santa Anita must be a mudder. Ordinarily he manages to bloop
from two to three sour notes per day.

In that cite "bloop" is clearly onomatopoetic, extended from its
technological use in radio and film.  (Is the "blooper"/"bloop hit" of
baseball understood as onomatopoetic as well, imitating the sound of the
bat weakly hitting the ball?  Or is there some influence from "looper"?)

The earliest example I can find of "blooper" meaning "blunder" comes from
a Jan. 1942 article by New York Times music critic Howard Taubman.
Taubman used the term again later that year, also critiquing an orchestral
performance, and then again in 1946 referring to a Toscanini recording

New York Times, Jan 7, 1942, p. 22, col. 4
Artur Rubinstein gave a brilliant virtuoso performance of the solo part,
and the orchestra, after some bloopers in the first movement, settled down
to business.
New York Times, Nov 25, 1942, p. 17, col. 6
Save for several bloopers in the brass, the players responded to the
conductor's fire with a precision, a richness of tone and a wide variety
of color that only one or two orchestras in the country could match.
New York Times Magazine, Dec 8, 1946, p. 66
When he heard the playback, Toscanini detected the blooper and began to
cuss himself out more violently than he had ever stormed at any erring

Taubman's usage is perhaps transitional, since it's still
onomatopoetically describing the sound of misplayed notes.  The earliest
cite I've found for "blooper" referring to a non-sonic blunder is, not
surprisingly, from the world of baseball:

Lowell (Massachusetts) Sun, Aug 11, 1942, p. 9, col. 1
Naturally you are all aware of the most recent "blooper" on the part of
Ford Frick's men in blue, the game of Saturday last at Braves field when
Whit Wyatt and Manny Salvo engaged in a game of throw and duck with three
of these gazabos as paid onlookers.

That's a columnist decrying the poor officiating of National League
umpires. Another early sporting usage applied "blooper" to a prizefight
that appeared "fixed":

Los Angeles Times, Dec 4, 1943, p. 9, col. 5
(heading) Malacara-Moore Ring Blooper Called 'Draw'
They staged a blooper at Hollywood last night that needs a little
investigation by the august members of the State Athletic Commission. ...
Apparently, the script called for Malacara to lose somewhere along the
line, by hook or crook or otherwise.
Los Angeles Times, Jun 4, 1944, p. II-6, col. 8
The fight was a "blooper," one in which apparently some sort of fix was in.

Back to baseball... Though "blooper" had been used since the mid-'20s to
refer to "a fly ball hit barely beyond a baseball infield", starting in
1943 it was also used for "a high baseball pitch lobbed to the batter"
(MWCD11's definitions).  Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates was
notorious for this unusual pitch (usually associated with softball):

Washington Post, Jul 21, 1943, p. 16, col. 3
Sewell ... used his blooper slowball frequently to throw the Phils off
their stride.

There are many subsequent cites for Sewell's "blooper ball" in 1943-44.
The pitch was so well-known that it was even applied to football:

Los Angeles Times, Oct 12, 1944, p. II-7, col. 7
(heading) Gaels to Throw 'Blooper' Passes
Jimmy Phelan has come up with a wing-dinger that he hopes will give his
St. Mary's Gaels an upset victory over UCLA at the Coliseum Saturday.
It's a "blooper" pass!
Jimmy got the idea from the freak pitching of Pittsburgh's Rip Sewell,
whose "blooper" is a high, arching job that falls across the plate and
generally causes batters either to stand gaping while the umpire calls a
strike or to break their backs swinging on the dropping pellet.

I'm guessing that the "blooper" pitch was so called because its slow arc
resembled that of the "blooper" fly ball.  Unlike the fly ball, however,
the pitch was actually intentional when thrown by Sewell -- it only
*looked* like an embarrassing mistake (as "blooper" was generally coming
to mean).

Finally, here is a cite from 1946 conjecturing that a "blooper atom bomb"
had been "slipped over the boys at Bikini" (evoking Sewell's blooper

Los Angeles Times, Jul 5, 1946, p. 1, col. 1
It all seemed very encouraging and it enabled people to concentrate on the
notable performance of the Brooklyn Bums in the National League and to get
an argument started as to whether or not the Navy had slipped a blooper
atom bomb over the boys at Bikini. One NYU student who had read the Smythe
report said he thought the bomb had misfired.

--Ben Zimmer

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