<<While the epithet bozo did not originate with Bozo the Clown, the earliest print examples date to about 1920. Bozo crops up in a few diaries of World War I soldiers that were later published for a mass audience, in familiar contexts like "you old bozo" and "that's right, bozo."
But how did it get so familiar? Bozo might have come into circulation thanks to a precursor of Bozo the Clown: a vaudeville character named Bozo from the early 20th century. So suggests some new research by Peter Reitan on his Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog. (Reitan previously pitched in with some great research on the phrase "get one's goat.")
Reitan uncovered the history of a vaudeville act involving Edmond Hayes as "wise guy" Spike Hennessey and his sidekick "Bozo," appearing as early as 1911 in a routine where they play piano movers causing mayhem among high-society types. "Bozo" was originally played by Bobby Archer, but the character gained greater fame played by Tommy Snyder starting in 1914. The new actor became so associated with the role that he was popularly known as "Bozo" Snyder. His silent "tramp" character, played in pantomime, was said to have influenced Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.
"Bozo" was in fact a personal name among immigrants to the United States from Serbian and Croatian regions. It seems likely that vaudeville's Bozo originated from this immigrant name and stereotypes surrounding eastern Europeans (akin to the use of palooka to refer to an oafish boxer, probably related to the Polish name Paluka).
Reitan's blog provides much more historical background, and his research continues. He recently came across a 1906 notice in the New York Clipper advertises a circus performer named "The Great Bozo, Hoop Roller and Barrel Jumper." But even if there are earlier precursors, it seems quite likely that Tommy "Bozo" Snyder brought fame to the name, long before Bozo the Clown became a television staple.>>