Black Friday Sale: Get 75% off a digital subscription
You Don't Say

In a word: pooh-bah

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


Pompous and self-important persons are as common as chiggers in tall grass, and pooh-bah (pronounced as spelled) is an excellent term for cutting them down to size. 

We owe the word to William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan's 1885 confection of Victorian japonaiserie, The Mikado. The operetta includes the eponymous Pooh-Bah, who holds a plurality of titles, including Lord High Everything Else. 

The OED's first definition hews close to the character: "A person exercising power by holding many offices at the same time; a person with much influence and many functions."

With time, the sense of pomposity has overwhelmed the sense of plural offices, and the sense of wielding real power and influence is much reduced. Now the dominant sense is of a person infatuated with his own imagined importance, combined with limited authority and a taste for high-sounding but largely meaningless titles.

In fact, some apply the term pooh-bah to themselves in humorous self-deprecation. 

Example: From Mamie Schulenberg's A Test of Survival (2005): "He was evidently having difficulty accepting that the grand pooh-bahs of medicine could be all wrong." 


Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun