Q: I was on a political website when up popped a hyperlink to “25-year-old blonde bombshell.” I resisted infecting my computer, but began thinking about “bombshell.” For the first time, a search on your blog did not yield a single hit!
A: Thanks for pointing out this deficiency and giving us a chance to remedy it.
Not surprisingly, “bombshell” literally meant a bomb—a container filled with explosives—when it showed up in English in the early 1700s. Today, we’d refer to such an explosive device as a “bomb” or a “shell” (as in “artillery shell”).
The earliest example of “bombshell” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1708 issue of the London Gazette: “Kill’d … by a piece of Bomb-Shell.” (The OED says “bombshell” here means “bomb,” but we think it could also mean shrapnel.)
The word “bomb” itself first appeared in English, spelled “bome,” in a 1588 translation of a work by Juan González de Mendoza, who had used the Spanish bomba.
The spelling with “b” showed up a century later, in a 1684 issue of the London Gazette: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece.”
As you point out, the word “bombshell” is generally used figuratively today to mean a shocking or unwelcome surprise, as well as a very attractive woman, especially a blonde.
In fact, “bombshell” has been used figuratively for more than 150 years, and only one of the OED’s nine citations (the one cited above) uses it literally.
The first figurative example in the dictionary, from the American writer John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (1860), refers to a “letter, which descended like a bombshell, in the midst of the decorous council-chamber.”
The earliest OED example for “bombshell” used in the hottie sense is from The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “Blonde Bombshell (as a nickname).”
However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan E. Lighter, has an earlier citation, from the title and screenplay of the 1933 Jean Harlow movie Bombshell: “I see Lola Burns, the bombshell herself.”
And here’s a colorful OED example from We Are Public Enemies, a 1949 book by Alan Hynd about famous American criminals: “Bonnie Parker was a rootin’, tootin’, whisky-drinking blonde bombshell.”
(“Blond” or “blonde”? We discussed this in a 2014 post.)
We’ll end with a more cerebral Oxford citation, from the Nov. 25, 1965, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “The bombshell effects … of the intellectual and social crises of late antiquity.”
[Update, June 23, 2016: A reader suggests that we should have used “bomb fragment” instead of “shrapnel” above, since “shrapnel” wasn’t used in that sense until Word War I. As we mentioned in a 2014 post, the original “shrapnel,” named for Henry Shrapnel, was an explosive projectile filled with bullets. However, that sense is now considered historical, according to the OED, and today the word usually refers to bomb or shell fragments.]