The True History of a Windbag

Ideas in etymology are like ideas in general.  Just as there is the carefully researched and formulated scientific theory as against 'just an idea', so with etymology. It is to be expected that as language becomes more widely researched, so the false etymologies still current will be displaced.

This blog is part 2 of an occasional series in false etymology, Part 1 may be found  here.
Of impacient Folys that wyll nat abyde correccioun
Unto our Folys Shyp let hym come hastely
Sebastian Brant, Das Narrenschiff

The  Windbag Words

Windbag, buffoon, fool, folly, airhead, a mere puff, and many similar terms are all related to the core idea of the idle use of air.  A windbag is a person who talks overmuch, perhaps about nothing in particular. We say that such people are full of wind or even full of themselves.  We treat them as fools.  Puffed up nonsense can describe any overblown use of words. Words in an advertisement may be mere puff, but they may still have legal consequences.

'Windbag' is a word, but 'bag of wind' is an expression.  The difference is important. Words tend to get absorbed into a language with incremental variations.  Compare 'wind' and 'vent' with their equivalents in many languages.  An expression is not a word but an idea. It readily passes between languages through complete translation.  it is immediately understood without a need for any formal education. And so it is more readily absorbed as a concept than is any single word.

The pejorative link between 'airhead', 'windbag' and 'fool' is strengthened by a knowledge of  etymology. In Latin the word follis, meant 'a bag or sack, a large inflated ball, a pair of bellows.'  The users of living Latin presumably saw a resemblance between the bellows or the inflated ball and someone who was what people now call 'a windbag' or perhaps 'an airhead'.  The term could also have meant 'moneybags' or 'puffed out cheeks'.  The latter idea is in turn linked to the English term 'buffoon'.

The English word 'folly', which passed into English by way of French, is first recorded in English in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with the sense 'a foolish, stupid, or ignorant.'

There is a long association of fools with wild talk and bladders.
" ... carried in his hand a stick called his bauble, terminating either in an inflated bladder, or some other ludicrous object, to be employed in slapping inadvertent neighbours."
Source: Chambers Book of Days

The Windbag in The Odyssey

In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was sacrificed to appease Artemis, who had caused the Achaean fleet to be becalmed at Aulis at the beginning of the Trojan War. In Homer's "Odyssey", Aeolus, ruler of the Aeolian islands and of the winds, presented Odysseus and his crew with a gift of the four winds in a bag. However, the sailors opened the bag while Odysseus slept, expecting to find something of value. As a result of this folly the ship was blown off course by the resulting gale. Source: Homer, "The Odyssey", book 10.]

The Prehistoric Origins of a Bag of Wind

In prehistoric times, the smelting of metallic ores progressed from open hearth to the use of the crucible, and then the furnace.  Paleogeologists have discovered evidence to show that early furnaces were built on hillsides, located and oriented with great precision to make use of the prevailing winds. In the absence of written records and artifacts, it has been shown that the chemical compositions of slags determine the temperature range of the original melt.

Air flow over a hill from Mesoscale modelling of atmospheric flows past complex terrain.
Image source: Prof. Szymona Malinowskiego

In the absence of wind, work would have halted.  Our ancestors, being as reluctant as us to lose an opportunity to make money, would have experimented with ways to supplement the wind.  Following from the use of pipes to blow air in a controlled and forceful manner, skins and bladders would have been used. In the absence of remains of such air bags, slag analysis supports the suggestion of their use.

In all ages, people with skills have sought to protect their intellectual property.  I suggest that, at first, metal workers using the new process would have made up stories about how they could make metals in a highly productive way without wind. They may have claimed favourable treatment from the gods.

On discovering the lie, it would be easy to associate the telling of tall tales with a bag of wind. From the idea of a bag of wind being an explanation of skills to the uninitiated, it is but a small leap to the idea of sailors sharing an 'in' joke about how to move a ship when it is becalmed.

Even before Newton, sailors would have been fully aware of the folly, the buffoonery of suggesting that a ship might be propelled by letting the contents of a bag of wind blow on the sail. I suggest that whoever first told the tall tale of a sailor being gifted a bag of wind by a god was just 'puffing out' a story of adventure.  In that sense, the first reciter of the story of Aeolus' gift was the original storytelling windbag.

Source on prehistoric smelting of metals:
From hearth to furnace : evidences for the earliest metal smelting technologies in the Eastern Mediterranean
Viewable online, or downloadable as a free pdf file here.

Edit:   since publishing this, I found a reference to an early German language variant of windbag,
 ' windbeutel', in a book title:
"Cicero, ein grosser Wind-Beutel, Rabulist und Charletan."
( Cicero, a windbag, pettifogger and charletan. )
by Johann Ernst Philippi, 1735