Monday, December 17, 2012


I was thinking of doing this word a while ago, probably after watching one of the political news shows talking about congress, but it actually  came up again tonight at a discussion group I go to, and after a fairly raucous discussion, one of the men said jocularly, "Enough with your rancid fulminations!" It was funny, but it also gives me my cue.

To fulminate is to hold forth or blow a lot of hot air, I think. A senator fulminating is one of the more common ways you hear this word. But what does it really mean? I've already seen that there may be some tantalizing chemical origins, so let's take a look...


Okay, well, I have this slightly wrong. It has a more specific meaning. To fulminate is to denounce or attack verbally, usually in a thunderous manner. The thunderous bit is key here, because the word goes back to the Latin fulminare--to hurl lightening or to lighten, because the Latin for lightning flash is fulmen. Interesting that the sound and not the light seems to have crossed over. The word started in English in the fifteenth century in its metaphoric and not its literal sense and was originally used in ecclesiastical censure. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

In chemistry, though, a fulminate is an explosive salt of fulminic acid. Yeah, yeah, whatever, you say. But hasn't Breaking Bad taught you that high school chemistry is eternally relevant? And in fact, Episode 6 of Breaking Bad has a scene involving mercury fulminate:

And here is an article with comments on whether this was a realistic scene and other related topics.



  1. I love how you pull it all together here! And I hope to fulminate soon.

  2. Let us know when it's about to happen, Kathleen. We may all need a little bit of warning...

  3. I think I may have broken slightly bad in the same way you did on the meaning of fulminate. I like this word, but I wish newspaper reporters would use it more selectively. I would hate for it to become as depressingly pro forma a bit of journalistic usage as is the defendant who gave a "rambling speech."

  4. Luckily, the man who used the word in the group was using it correctly. Of course, he was a lawyer, so he has probably seen his share of same.

    Nice reuse of breaking bad, by the way.

  5. Thanks. So it transpires that I've vituperated without knowing that I was fulminating at the same time.

    The process by which fulminate shall we say came to acquire its new meaning is interesting. The form (holding forth loudly) came to replace the content (denunciation) as the word's dominant defining characteristic.

  6. This is one of the things that's interesting about looking at words' histories, Peter. They prove very flexible over time.

  7. I remember once arguing with a colleague about a headline or story that used prodigal as if it meant wandering. I don't know if that error ever spread, but it was an interesting example of someone mistaking an incidental feature for an essential, defining one.