bombast

Donald Trump continues to divide poles and conquer polls. His supporters hear his rhetoric as “straight talk” while his opponents hear it as bluster and bombast. Both can agree there is little softness to his style – except, ironically enough, for the origin of the very word bombast.

Cotton_Ink on paper_doodle
“Bombast.” Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Bombast

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites bombast as “high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject” as early as the 1580s. In today’s usage of the word, I would argue that bombastic politicians may not be ranting on necessarily trivial matters, and nor necessarily in a highfalutin way, but their language is nonetheless “inflated” or “turgid,” as the OED additionally defines it. 

Turgid? That might sound a bit bombastic to 2015 ears. Let’s try “puffed out,” which points us to the earlier meaning of bombast. See, at least since the 1560s, bombast was once “the soft down of the cotton-plant.” The word is a variant of bombace, which appears earlier in the 1550s, and which, for one reason or another, got padded with a t at its end. By the 1570s, bombast was “padding or stuffing for clothes” and any “padding” or “stuffing” more generally. We can pad or stuff our language, too, making something petty sound quite grand. Hence, bombast. 

Bombace comes to English from the Old French bombace, in turn from the late Latin bombax. Both terms referred to “cotton.” But Latin’s bombax originated from something yet softer: “silk.” Etymologists think bombax got confused with bombyx (“silk”), taken from the Greek βόμβυξ (bombyx), also “silk” as well as the “silkworm.” This “silk” may direct us to yet more eastern climes, for the Greeks may have borrowed bombyx from a language there; scholars point to words like the Persian pamba as potential sources.

As the OED also notes, another early figurative use for bombast was a “stopping of the ears,” as you can imagine. It seems bombast is one way to deal with all the bombast. Bombax!, as the Ancient Romans may have interjected. Indeed, this delightful homonym was a way to cry, as I think this etymology so evokes, “Strange! Indeed!”

Cotton_Ink on paper_scribblem ∫ r ∫ 

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9 thoughts on “bombast

  1. Chasing βόμβυξ (bombyx) around Wikipedia it suggests that the Ancient Greek word for “silkworm” is related to Middle Persian pmbk’ ‎(pambag) “cotton” (Modern Persian پنبه ‎(pambe) as well as related to other Eastern Iranian languages (Khotanese) although “the ultimate origin is unknown. Perhaps a loanword from one of the languages of India?” Bit vague, so that’s anyone from a rough estimate of 1030 possible languages over the course of history? Doing some further digging I found that Tocharian B had the word kampās (“cotton”) apparently from Sanskrit कर्पास (karpāsa) which in turn suggest the Wiki page that: ” कर्पास (karpāsa), meaning “cotton”, from a Prakrit कपास (kapāsa) or कापास (kāpāsa) is probably from an Austronesian root (cf. Malay, Indonesian kapas, noticeably not karpas). The insertion of the ‘r’ is down to hypercorrection due to non-Indic sources being borrowed into Sanskrit.”

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    1. Excellent travel notes from the “silk road”! The evidence for some kind of an Indic root is compelling, while the possibility of an Austronesian root is quite interesting. But how to explain the Sanskrit initial “k” to the Greek “b”?

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  2. And Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a. “Paracelsus” (1493-1541), who crammed into his 48 years contributions to medicine, toxicology, philosophy, and psychotherapy. His contemporaries commented on his arrogant speaking, this sample of which is offered by Wiki: “I need not don a coat of mail or a buckler against you, for you are not learned or experienced enough to refute even a word of mine…As for you, you can defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last?…Let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.” He died 40 years before the earliest written attribution for “bombast” was discovered by the editors of OED. Wiki writes that he may have been the template for Goethe’s Dr. Faust (Germ. “fist”)

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