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Blooming, buzzing confusion



I have a vague memory of having written something much like this before, but I don't mind repeating myself.

One of the best known of William James' many well-known well-crafted sentences is this, from PRINCIPLES OF PSYCHOLOGY:

"The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space."

This is sometimes misquoted,  and we get a "great booming, buzzing confusion" instead. The mistake is worth correcting when it occurs, because "booming buzzing" simply contrasts two very different sounds. It refers, then, only to one of the sense and no particular sort of event, and is a good deal less confused than what James has in mind.

The words "blooming buzzing" refer to a sight and then a sound. With a little thought (of the sort not available to the baby) we can infer that a bee is circling a flower. The baby sees the flower and hears the sounds, but has no sense of the sort of event into which that sound and that sight both fit. Thus, "blooming buzzing" suggests the dangers that arise from the failure to make sense out of sensation -- the baby may be due for a painful sting quite soon.

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