bum steer

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bum steer

Post by Archived Topic » Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:29 am

A friend asked me last night about the origin of the phrase "bum steer" (since she knows I'm from Texas). I am loathe to admit it, but I'm stumped. I've exhausted my usual word origin sources on the net. Based on my research, though, I actually have two questions: 1) the definitive meaning(s) of the phrase, and 2) its/their origin(s).

I personally have always heard/known bum steer to refer to a tangible object that's a dud, a loser, as in, "you got a bum steer there." Assumed the origin related back to cattle drives, like a steer with a bum (bad/lame) leg. All I found on word origin searches was stuff related to German words for loafer and a reference to bummer as a Civil War phrase.

I did a dictionary search and was surprised to find that no dictionaries listed my understanding of the meaning but, instead, consistently listed the meaning as bad advice or bad information. I've never heard it used in this context!

To add to the confusion, Texas Monthly (a popular lifestyle magazine in Texas) gives out annual Bum Steer awards, usually accorded to politicians or others who did something really stupid or embarrassing during that year.

So, does anyone have insight into the fact that there are at least two uses other than what appear in the standard dictionaries? and into the origin of any or all of these various meanings?

Muchas gracias,
PauladePlume
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:44 am

Dear PP, I never heard of your understanding of ‘bum steer’ and think it could be a very local one or perhaps even yours and no one else’s. ‘Bum steer’ only has one sense that I have ever heard of and standard and slang dictionaries seem to agree (and Bum Steer award would appear to fit into this definition). The ‘steer’ of ‘bum steer’ is not the animal but the noun form of the verb, to guide a course. So to give someone a ‘steer’ is to give them ‘a suggestion about a course of action or a tip’ (M-W). And ‘bum,’ meaning poor quality or bad, gives the phrase the meaning of ‘bad advice.’
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BUM STEER slang: an instance of false or misleading information or directions especially when purposely so. (Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)

BUM STEER: erroneous; ill-advised; misleading: “That tip on the stock market was a bum steer.” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary)

STEER informal: a suggestion about a course of action: “He got a GOOD STEER about finding the right course of action.” [before 900; Middle English ‘steren,’ Old English ‘steoran,’ akin to ‘steor,’ steering, guidance] (Random House Unabridged Dictionary)
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Some other similar definitions found were: advice or information that proves to be wrong; a piece of bad advice; misinformation; erroneous guidance; a false clue. I found several conflicting dates around for the first appearance in print ranging from 1914 (Stuart Flexner – Listening to America) to the 1920s (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang). The earliest actual quote cited by ‘The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang’ is a definition from 1924: ‘Crookdom’ by Henderson, page 399, “‘bum steer’ poor advice.”
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Ken G – November 6, 2003
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 12:58 am

Paula,

If it's any consolation to you, I have encountered the meaning you are familiar with much more often than the one Ken describes. He is quite incorrect to suggest that it may only be a local usage or that you made it up! (Tsk, tsk!)

In fact, the _Cassell Dictionary of Slang_ gives both meanings. The entry is as follows:

[1920s+] 1. A piece of bad advice or information. 2. A mistake, the wrong direction. [BUM adj. + Standard English steer]

Under 'BUM adj.', the same dictionary states:

[late 19C+] 1. (Orig. US) Useless, second-rate, poor, inferior, dirty, ragged. 2. (Orig. US) Slightly ill, under the weather. 3. (US) Depressed. [BUM n.3, 2]

Under the second definition of the third meaning of BUM, Cassells states:

To boast, to brag [Irish 'bommanach', bragging, boastful]
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 1:13 am

Whoops - I just realised that I cited the wrong entry for BUM n3, 2. It should have been as follows:

[Mid-19C] (US) A term of abuse for anyone unpleasant. [Abbr. BUMMER n.2]

Under BUMMER n.2, we find:

[Mid-19C} (US) A tramp, vagrant (cf. BOOMER n.2). [The precursor of BUM n.3 (1)]

Under BOOMER n.2, we find:

[Late 19C+] (US) A transient worker, a migrant; thus 'boomer reporter', a journalist who works on papers all over the country, never keeping one job for too long (cf. BUMMER n.1; HOME GUARD]. (Standard English 'boom', an economic upswing; the US boomers moved from one boom oil camp to the next during the 1920s-30s]
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 1:27 am

Erik And PP, The meaning of ‘bum’ in this expression in not in question – it’s the ‘steer.’ ‘Steer’ has two meanings in standard English – one the animal and the other as I mention above is the noun form of the verb ‘to guide a course.’ Every source I consulted said the ‘steer’ here was the second and not the first, although I admit that in my own mind I always thought of it as being the animal and perhaps some sources do think of it that way, but I haven’t seen any that do. And in Cassell’s, since both forms are Standard English, it is not clear which one they are referring to. The New Shorter OED says that ‘steer’ derives from the verb (guide to a specified point or in a specified direction) and means ‘A piece of advice or information; a tip, a lead; a direction. <The public must give a clear steer . . as to which route the [police] service should follow.> BUM STEER slang (a piece of) false information or bad advice.

In light of the fact that in the OED ‘bum steer’ is defined under ‘steer’ the guide and not the animal, as is the case with Random House and Merriam-Webster’s above, I would guess that the origin of the expression was probably as I indicated, but that the expression has probably come to be interpreted by many to refer to the animal. However, origin aside, I have never seen nor heard ‘a bum steer’ referred to as a physical object – “a tangible object that's a dud, a loser” – and that is certainly not what Cassell’s defines it as. So I do not see their entries as confirmation of PP’s or your assertion. As far as I am aware, ‘bum steer’ has always been a piece of bad verbal advice, but, of course, there are always nonstandard usages out there that I have not seen. Erik, is ‘bum steer’ an expression that is used much in England and perhaps there has the meaning you suggest? But I did check Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang which usually covers most British expressions and ‘bum steer’ was not listed.

PP, Didn’t mean to make light of your reading of the meaning of the expression, but there are many words and phrases that I have misinterpreted for many years, and they seemed to fit, only to find out years later that I had done so. I was kind of assuming to myself that this might be the case with your interpretation. In fact, one of these instances occurred in these hallowed halls, much to my embarrassment, only last year. I was amazed to find out, when corrected, that there was no such word as ‘lengthly,’ which someone had the nerve to tell me was supposed to be ‘lengthy.’ So these things do happen in the best of families. With the corroboration by Erik, however, it does appear that there is something to your interpretation – unless of course you are both delusional. (<:)

Ken – November 6, 2003

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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 1:41 am

Macquarie Dictionary Book of Slang
bum steer: noun: incorrect information or advice.
.. in Aus the term "bum steer" has the abstract meaning of being steered in the wrong direction but is not as PP puts it, "a tangible object" .. it has common usage .. it is used as, "He was given a bum steer over that." .. or, "Bill got the bum steer." .. but it is never used to refer to the actual advice only the action .. we would say, "Bill was told yadda yadda yadda. It was a bum steer." .. never any thought that the "steer" refered to anything but the verb "to steer" ..
PS. Sorry Ken but you are guilty of not providing the full quote from Cassells and Eric and PP are correct in saying that the phrase does have two legitimate definitions .. I have often wondered if you always gave ALL the information .. *smile* .. as I don't have the personal resources to check your references maybe one day I will have to start logging on at the library so that I can have equal access ..
Wizard of Oz, Australia. 07/11/03
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 1:56 am

Wiz, Your PS is ill taken. In my first response (and the second for that matter) I provided no quotes from Cassell’s, so I guess I am guilty of not providing the full quote! The only point I was trying to make in that response was that ‘steer’ was not the animal and that PP’s understanding of the meaning of the expression was not mine and not that of most dictionaries (standard and slang: M-W Unabridged, Random House Unabridged, New Shorter OED, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Chapman’s Dictionary of Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Encarta, Macquaire Book of Slang – you can trust my references, Wiz – I’m a physicist and scientists are only in search of truth and beauty and never fudge – well, almost never!) (<;)

Erik provided the full Cassell’s definition in the next response including the second closely related ‘mistake,’ wrong direction.’ In my second response I reiterated the points I made in the first (backed up by the OED) and emphasized that Cassell’s never defined ‘bum steer’ as a physical object. I certainly didn’t withhold any Cassell’s information – which would have been a pretty futile effort since it was all sitting out there for public viewing in Erik’s post. So when you say “you are guilty of not providing the full quote from Cassell’s,” exactly what full quote are you referring to and what is the part I withheld?

Yours in perpetual nitpicking, (<:)
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Ken – November 6, 2003
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 2:10 am

Thanks to all for the generous and informative input, as usual. I don't know how you guys all know each other, but you're quite entertaining. I digress.

Frankly, it never dawned on me that the *steer* reference was to a verb and not to the noun! The usage I am familiar with undoubtedly has been colored by the regional influence (i.e., Texas). You may be familiar with the saying, Texas: home of steers and queers. In Texas, steer means bovine.

Actually, I think the Texas Monthly usage supports the noun version, instead of the verb version (bad advice/direction). They're clearly making a tongue-in-cheek jab at stupid politicians, and I believe they are using steer in the sense of a castrated bovine - someone who's ineffectual and bum meaning bad. He's a real bad cow and full of manure, too boot.

I hope someone else who is familiar with my understanding will respond. Yes, I realize these things can happen (or as we say in Texas: might could happen) in the best of families, Ken, but not convinced just yet.
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 2:25 am

to boot, rather. late here.
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 2:39 am

*PauladePlume*
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 2:53 am

PP, You might be right and Texas Monthly and others might be using the expression as the animal or more likely as a double meaning play on words. But if they are, it seems to me the usage probably began as a PUN and perhaps some folks lost sight of the distinction between the pun and the punned upon – or whatever you call that, and for them the expression means exclusively a second-rate castrated male bovine in spite of the fact that there is no dictionary I can find that unambiguously agrees. But if that’s how a large number of people are using it, then it is correct by usage, and to hell with the dictionaries, as any descriptivist will tell you – hey that’s me! So maybe after all my bull, you’re right after all. Let truth reign! – but I only said maybe. (<:)
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Ken G – November 6, 2003
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 3:08 am

So who is right, and who is 'navigating by the seat of their pants'?
;-]]Simple Simon
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 3:22 am

The second question's easy, Simon - back-seat drivers,
EA

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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 3:37 am

Now, here I thought it was an English poofter expression for a referral to another of similar penetrating ideas. *G*

Leif, WA, USA
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bum steer

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Oct 11, 2004 3:51 am

Simon,

If the person driving the Guinness truck is given the bum steer, the 'N' could fall off the truck, or would the person who is killed by the Guinness truck making a wrong turn be the victim of a bum steer?

The other question is, would it be a double negative if a person hauling cattle is given incorrect directions and takes a wrong turn?

Sam 08/11/03
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