November 12, 2014

Case File #014.11.12: BOMBAST

Since you probably already know that bombast means “pompously inflated speech or writing,” it's unlikely that the word makes you think of soft, pleasant things such as silk or cotton. So you just may be surprised to learn that the word originated with the classical Greek noun bombyx, which meant “silk” and “silkworm.” Classical Latin borrowed the Greek and used it to mean simply “silk,” but by the time the word passed into Medieval Latin, its form had changed to bambax and it had come to mean “cotton.” The Latin bambacem, the accusative declension of bambax, was the basis for the Old French bombace, meaning both “cotton” and “cotton wadding,” and when English speakers borrowed the French word in the mid-sixteenth century, they initially used it to mean “cotton padding” but soon changed its meaning to “any soft fibrous material used as padding.” It wasn't until circa 1575, though, that English speakers Anglicized the noun's form to the contemporary bombast, and it took yet another decade or so for the word's literal sense of “fibrous padding” to shift to the current figurative one that alludes to the padding often found in highfalutin and grandiose language.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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