The Grammarphobia Blog

All bombast and fustian

Q: I enjoyed your post about the pronunciation of “bomb.” I especially enjoy the word “bombastic,” which I assume is a relative.

A: We wish we could say “bombastic” is related to “bomb.” Alas, it isn’t so.

The adjective “bombastic” comes from “bombast,” a noun that once meant cotton padding. So etymologically, a “bombastic” speech (or speaker) is stuffed with padding—that is, inflated language.

The word “bombast” first appeared in English writing in the mid-16th century, when it meant “the soft down of the cotton-plant; raw cotton; cotton-wool,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first Oxford example is from The Arbor of Amitie (1568), a book of poems by Thomas Howell: “From all meate soft, as wooll and flaxe, / bombaste and winds that bloe.” (In the later 1500s the word was used adjectivally in the same way, and “bombast cloth” meant cotton cloth.)

Early on, the word was often spelled with a final “e,” or with a “u” as the first vowel. (A variant, spelled “bombace” or “bombase,” was recorded in the 1550s, the OED says.)

The source of “bombast” was the French noun bombace (cotton or cotton wadding), which came from a form of the Latin noun bombax (cotton). The Latin noun, the dictionary says, was “a corruption and transferred use of Latin bombyx” (silk), from the Greek βόμβυξ (bombux, for silk or silkworm).

Soon after it was introduced, “bombast” was used to mean, in the OED’s words, “cotton-wool used as padding or stuffing for clothes, etc.” Oxford’s earliest example of this use is from George Gascoigne’s poem Councell Given to Master Bartholomew Withipoll (1572): “To stuff thy doublet full of such bumbaste.”

And Gascoigne himself was the first to use the word in a broader way, to mean any kind of padding or stuffing: “It hath no bumbast now, but skin and bones.” Here the narrator of Gascoigne’s short poem “Dan Bartholomew” (1575) describes his enfeebled body.

All those uses of “bombast” are now obsolete, Oxford says. Except for historical references, they died out in the 17th century.

The only surviving use is a figurative one that emerged in the 1580s, defined in the OED as “inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject; ‘fustian’; ‘tall talk.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for this sense is from Thomas Nashe’s To Students (1589): “To outbraue better pens with the swelling bumbast of a bragging blanke verse.”

(Myth alert: It’s not true, the OED says, that this sense of the word is derived from Paracelsus, pseudonym of the Swiss alchemist, astrologer, and physician Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.)

Until well into the 17th century, spellings of “bombast” varied. But by the 18th century, both the spelling and the meaning had become standardized, as in this OED citation from Alexander Pope:

“The ambition of surprising a reader, is the true natural cause of all Fustian, or Bombast in Poetry” (from a letter written Dec. 17, 1710).

At around this same time, the adjective “bombastic” came into use.

The adjective was first recorded, the OED says, in what’s known as “The ‘Key’ to The Rehearsal” (1704): “Outdoing them in their Bumbastick Bills.” (The “Key” is an anonymous commentary on The Rehearsal, a satirical play by the Duke of Buckingham that was first performed in 1671.)

And Daniel Defoe used the modern spelling in a 1727 essay: “A certain bombastic Author.”

By the time the adjective “bombastic” appeared, all remnants of the “cotton wool” and “cotton fabric” senses of “bombast” had disappeared. But there’s an echo of those earlier senses in “bombazine,” a heavy dress-making material.

While “bombazine” doesn’t come from “bombast,” the two words have points in common.

“Bombazine” came into English from French (bombasin), but (like “bombast”) it can also be traced back to the Latin bombyx. Despite their origin in bombyx (silk) rather than bombax (cotton), the French bombasin and the later English “bombazine” sometimes meant a fabric that was part cotton.

The OED defines “bombazine” (spelled “bombasine” in Britain) as “a twilled or corded dress-material, composed of silk and worsted [wool]; sometimes also of cotton and worsted, or of worsted alone.” As the OED notes, black bombazine was “much used in mourning.”

As you may have noticed, the term “fustian” was mentioned above a couple of times. Interestingly, this is another fabric term that’s been used to mean overblown language.

As long ago as circa 1200, “fustian” meant a coarse fabric of cotton and flax. The term came into English from the Old French fustaigne, a term “conjecturally derived,” as the OED says, from “Fostat, the name of a suburb of Cairo where cloth was manufactured.”

In the late 1500s, probably because of its earlier associations with “bombast,” the noun “fustian” similarly came to mean empty verbiage. The OED defines it as “inflated, turgid, or inappropriately lofty language; speech or writing composed of high-sounding words and phrases; bombast, rant.”

This exchange, from Christopher Marlowes Doctor Faustus (written sometime before 1593), is the OED’s earliest example:

Wag: Let thy left eye be diametarily fixt vpon my right heele, with quasi vestigias nostras insistere.

Clown: God forgiue me, he speakes Dutch fustian.

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