A buffoon is a fool. The term is used both to describe amusing, yet entertaining fools such as clowns, and people who publicly make fools of themselves, like inept officials. The term is also used more generally to describe someone who is foolish or clumsy. Generally speaking, one does not consider the term complementary unless one is a professional clown or jester.
The term has been used in English since at least 1549, and it was probably borrowed from the Old French. The French actually took the word from the Italians, who referred to a jester as a buffone, a word derived from buffare, a word which means “to puff up the checks.” Buffare is believed to be imitative in origin. In any case, the English, along with many other European nations, had court jesters, buffoons, and clowns who entertained people with their antics in the Middle Ages.
In the sense of a clown or jester, a buffoon is a form of professional entertainer. Buffoons in the Middle Ages often wore brightly colored, garish clothing and they played musical instruments in addition to offering physical comedy and verbal wit. Buffoons often carried mock scepters and wore belled hats which mimicked crowns, making them the only people in court who could make fun of the monarch, even indirectly.
The role of a buffoon could actually be quite dangerous. Buffoons were expected to amuse the court, but they had to walk a fine line between being amusing and being offensive. Some monarchs expected their so-called “fools” to actually be sharp, witty, and political, and buffoons were sometimes the only ones bold enough to make critical comments about the condition of the kingdom. Over time, the jester was phased out, as trends in royal courts changed, although words like “jester,” “fool,” and “buffoon” exist in many languages today.
In the modern sense, most people use “buffoon” to refer to someone who looks like an idiot. A public figure might be called a buffoon if he or she makes an obvious gaffe, and the world may also be used to describe someone who is extremely socially awkward. Both physical and verbal slips could lead to labeling someone a “buffoon.” In modern France, some clowns and entertainers label themselves bouffons in a reference to the first sense of the word.