Patsy

This American three-sheet poster is for a silent serial featuring the character Patsy Bolivar. Bolivar was a 19th-century American vaudeville character who was always blamed for things going wrong. The character is one possible origin of the term “patsy."

Almost every American English speaker recognizes the word “patsy” as an unflattering moniker for a fool, a fall guy; one who is easily duped. Like many American slang terms, “patsy” has resisted attempts to uncover its etymology, but word watchers through the decades have offered various origin theories.

One simply makes “patsy” an alteration of an Italian word “pazzo,” meaning madman or fool.

Lexicographer Robert L. Chapman offers a more complex theory. In his New Dictionary of American Slang, he associates Patsy with the Italian “Pasqualino,” a nickname “used to designate a vulnerable, small boy or man.” Chapman writes that “Pasqualino” is “based… at least partly on the relation between “Pasqual,” “Easter,” and… the notion of the… Pascal lamb as the innocent victim.”

The Oxford English Dictionary favors another origin theory. It cites evidence of a 19th century American vaudeville play in which a hapless character named Patsy Bolivar was constantly blamed for classroom disturbances. When the schoolmaster bellowed in rage, “Who did that?” the boys would shout in unison, “Patsy Bolivar!” The name then escaped the limits of the play and was taken up by the man on the street as a synonym of fool and dupe.

This vaudeville theory is supported by the fact that word was capitalized as a proper name in its earliest appearances in 1899 and 1903.

Chrysti M. Smith is a Belgrade writer. The audio version of Chrysti the Wordsmith is produced at KGLT-FM at Montana State University. She can be reached through her website, wordsmithradio.org.