The dramatic roots of “explode”

In Ancient Rome, theatergoers would drive actors they didn’t like off stage by clapping very loudly. The custom ultimately gives us the word explode.

Last Friday, after seven years decrying Obamacare, House Republicans pulled their bill to replace it. It was an explosive event, and, from President Trump, it met with an ‘explosive’ response: “I’ve been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode. It is exploding now.”

Trump went on to use forms of explode five more times in his official remarks, and took the word to Twitter the following morning.

With its vivid imagery of a loud and fiery combustion, explode is, policy aside, an effective word choice. We might even call explode “dramatic”which would be quite fitting for the etymology of the word.

An etymological explosion. (Pixabay)

The sound and the fury

The word explode explodes on the English language scene in the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the word around 1552, when it meant “to reject or discard” an opinion, proposal, or the like. The noun form explosion is found slightly before, in the 1540s. Sir Francis Bacon provides a telling early example in his treatment of an important case of birthright citizenship in the early 1600s: “The court una voce exploded this reason.”

But the court wasn’t strapping dynamite on a legal argument and blowing it to smithereens. This original sense of explode in English comes from the Latin explōdere: “to drive (an actor) off stage by clapping,” hence to “reject.”

If Ancient Roman theatergoers didn’t like a performance, they, apparently, let you know by making a lot noise. This disapproval included the intimidating din of hissing, hooting, and, more like our modern booing, aggressive clapping. Today, Republicans certainly made a lot of noise about Obamacare, but they couldn’t explode it, as it were.

Please clap

“To clap” is indeed at the root of explōdere. This verb joins a familiar prefix, ex- (out, out of) and plaudere, “to applaud, clap the hands, or express approval,” and more basically, “to strike or beat.” The deeper roots of plaudere are unknown, but sound symbolism is probably at work. Plaud-plaud-plaud has a clappy-sounding ring to it, doesn’t it?

At the end of a performance, a Roman actor would ask the audience, “Valēre et plauditē! or “Farewell and applaud!” For the ancient thespians, audience approval could have sounded like finger-snapping and toga-flapping as well as versions of clapping we are familiar with today.

The theatrical request, Plauditē!, is the imperative (command) of plaudere and direct source of our word plaudits. Applause and plausible also derive from plaudere. Applause literally means “to clap to,” featuring a form of the prefix ad- (to), while plausible comes form plausibilis, “deserving applause.” And linguistic plosives, sounds represented by such letters as t and k, were shortened from explosive.

Word explosions

Over the centuries, explode exploded in meaning in English. Its earliest sense, as we saw, picked up on the word’s root sense of “disapproval.” This idea was continued in the 17th century, when explode was extended to mean “to reveal or expose the true nature of something,” e.g., an exploded theory.

Later that century, explode was calling up the “loud noise” and “vigorous expulsion” of its origins. By 1650, according to the OED, explode meant “to expel or propel suddenly,” especially with lots of noise and force. By 1670, scientists were using explode to characterize a “violent release of energy.” A gun explosion, or discharge, appears yet before, by 1652.

Come the 1780s, explode had settled into its general sense today, “to burst, shatter, or break apart,” particularly in a violent manner. 

Since then, explode has continued evolving into ever more figurative senses, such “to develop or increase in size rapidly,” hence a population explosion, which emerges by the 1950s. Implode/implosion, meanwhile, were formed in English in the late 19th century on the model of  explode/explosion.

For as much as Trump has now called for Obamacare to explode on its own accord, he himself—contrary to what we’ve come to expect from his personality and in spite of the debacle of the repeal effort—didn’t explode. And for that, let’s give the man a round of applause. A slow clap, perhaps?

m ∫ r ∫


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