Saturday, March 2, 2013


Louisiana governor Huey P. Long *

I heard Rachel Maddow use the word 'bombastic' the other day on her show, probably in reference to the pronouncements of some Republican or other. Realized once again that I have a vague rather than precise sense of a word. In this case, it may be even more pronounced than usual. Of course I know that bombastic is never meant as a compliment, and I think it may have something to do with with the use of cant, but there are overtones in the word itself that always make me associate it with heavy handedness, and leadenness. I always hear the bomb in bombast, but I also hear the echo of ballast. Is this leading me astray?

Oh, yeah, and pompous. I forgot to mention pompous. In general, bombastic means lofty sounding, high-falutin', grandiloquent, over the top. But it doesn't have anything to do with bombs, or ballast. In fact, it's more related to something called bombazine than either of these, but I'll get to that.

Bombast is one of those sneaky shape shifter words that has changed both meaning and spelling over time. It is a corruption of the earlier  and apparently obsolete "bombace", which was swiped directly from the Old French, which took it from the Late Latin bombacem, the accusative tense of the word bombax. Bombax was itself both a corruption and a transferred use of the older Latin bombyx.From the Greek.

So what was this bombace? It was cotton padding. This means that bombastic doesn't have to do with leadenness or any heaviness at all--it is, if anything, fluffy. Padded.

Which leads us to bombazine. Bombazine is a fabric. Originally this fabric was  woven with a silk warp and a wool weft, but over time the term also came to apply to cotton. In fact, a curious feature of all these bomba- words is that they start out referring to silk but end up referring to cotton. This happened with the original Greek bombax as well. (This Greek beginning led to similar words in many languages influenced by them. One of the more felicitous finds was that Turkish Nobel Prize novelist Orhan Pamuk would translate as Orhan Cotton.)

Anyway, bombazine was a very popular fabric for a long time, though eventually eclipsed by synthetic fabrics. There's a nice article on this at Wise Geek, and one of the interesting things
mentioned there is that it found its true niche as the fabric for mourning garments.

"Black bombazine appeared to have just the right amount of gloss to be considered appropriate for a widow and the relatives of the recently deceased. The twilled silk and worsted fabric design of the bombazine fabric made it possible to hold up well to multiple wearings and washings, so it was not necessary for the widow observing the one year of formal mourning to be outfitted with more than four or five dresses."

Church, Isle of Wight. Digital ID: 804007. New York Public Library
Church, Isle of Wight, 1872 (NYPL)


Bombast meaning cotton padding is first attested in 1560. It took a paltry 20 years for the meaning of "pompous, empty speech" to appear in print. Oratory apparently hasn't changed much since.

* I don't know if Huey Long was bombastic, but for a long time, he held the record for having given the country's longest filibuster.


  1. Fascinating. I realize I have run into "bombast" in its fabric context in my reading without really connecting it to "bombastic," but now it makes perfect sense. Thank you!

  2. And thank you as well. Trust you to already know about the fabric aspect. It's odd that a popular fabric can decline so far in popularity. Although maybe being associated with mourning isn't the best thing for a fabric's rep.

  3. Well, unlike a lot of Latinate words, there is kind of missing link effect, as 'bombace' seems to have vanished from our language in any practical sense.

  4. I am going take this matter up in greater depth after I get some sleep. In the meantime, this is not quite bombastic, but I like it.

  5. ...Make the case for the quite peculiar personality of Paracelsus, the physician and alchemist, whose name was Philippus Aureolus Teophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. If Bombastus was a broadly used name at the time or not, well, we don't know. But the guy was truly bombastic, to say the less.

  6. Hugo, I see on Wikipedia that his father was Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, so I'm going to guess that like Orhan Pamuk, the family name had something to do with their connections to cotton (or silk). Great find!