Meanings: Bomb

November 1, 2011

“Bomb,” from

bomb (n.):  1580s, from Fr. bombe, from It. bomba, probably from L. bombus “a deep, hollow noise; a buzzing or booming sound,” from Gk. bombos “deep and hollow sound,” echoic. Originally of mortar shells, etc.; modern sense of “explosive device placed by hand or dropped from airplane” is 1909. Meaning “old car” is from 1953. Meaning “success” is from 1954 (late 1990s slang the bomb “the best” is probably a fresh formation); opposite sense of “a failure” is from 1963. The bomb “atomic bomb” is from 1945. Bomber as a type of military aircraft is from 1917. Bombed “drunk” is from 1959.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the Norden bombsight, a complex, sophisticated device invented by a Swiss engineer, and widely (and expensively) used in World War II.  He shows that increased precision in bombing is much less important than knowing what you want to bomb, and that those you bomb are quickly likely to match your technical advances.  He also underscores that bombing people makes them angry.  Bombs are more than just deep, hollow noises.

Note from the etymology that we are just beyond the 100th anniversary of the first use of the word to denote explosive devices dropped from planes.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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