The Grammarphobia Blog

When a blockbuster was a bomb

Q: Am I right in believing that the word “blockbuster” originally referred to a show so popular that people lined up around the block to purchase tickets? This, of course, was in the days before phone sales and online ticket buying.

A: Today the term “blockbuster” usually refers to a play, a movie, a book, or another work of entertainment that’s an enormous success.

But when it first showed up in English during World War II, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word referred to “an aerial bomb capable of destroying a whole block of buildings.”

The press initially used “blockbuster” (two words at first, then hyphenated, and finally solid) to refer to 4,000-pound bombs used by the Royal Air Force during World War II. It was later used for RAF bombs of 8,000 and 12,000 pounds.

The OED’s earliest written example, from the Sept. 14, 1942, issue of Time magazine, refers to watching a test of the bombs from “a sturdy observation tower a mile from the exploding block busters.”

The next example is from the Dec. 22, 1943, issue of the Times of London: “Bombs were falling … many 8,000 lb. and 4,000 lb. ‘block-busters’ among them.”

“Blockbuster” took on several other meanings in the war years and later, including a knockout punch or other hard blow, something enormous, and the first black family to move into a white neighborhood, according to citations in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The OED’s first example of the term “blockbuster” used figuratively for an entertainment success is from The Friends, a 1957 novel by Godfrey Smith: “One day I had what seemed to me like a block-buster of an idea for a musical play.”

Here’s an earlier example from the New York Times archive. A June 3, 1951, article in the Times Magazine refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “Mrs. Stowe’s literary blockbuster.”

Interestingly, two cousins of “blockbuster” have been used to describe failure in entertainment and other endeavors: “bomb” (since 1961) and “dud” (since 1908).

So if that “blockbuster” of an idea in Smith’s novel The Friends turned out to be a “dud,” the musical would have been a “bomb.”

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