Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Bombology: Beyond the "Bomb Cyclone"

As America—and my poor little short-haired dog—reel from subzero temperatures and winter conditions that resemble the ice planet Hoth, there's a new menace on the move: a bomb cyclone.

This is an ominous term for the swirling, powerful weather phenomenon bringing snow to Florida and Georgia and poised to move up the east coast, like a Yeti hunting for, uh, whatever Yetis eat. Bomb cyclone sounds like hyperbole along the lines of snowmageddon and snowpocalypse but actually has a specific meteorological definition, along with a lexicon of related terms that are also quite vivid, such as bombogenesis. Bomb cyclone is also a reminder that a bomb is one of the worst things in the physical world, but one of the most useful reference points in the lexicon.

Bomb cyclone or Bombogenesis?

In The Washington Post, Matthew Cappucci discusses the impending cyclone bomb, along with synonyms such as weather bomb, explosive storm, and—my favorite—explosive bombogenesis. Bombogenesis is a derivative of cyclogenesis, the cyclone-creating process. These sound like devices from the evil laboratory of a mad scientist, but they merely describe what happens when atmospheric pressure drops at a bonkers rate: at least 24 millibars in a day. FYI, the impending bomb cyclone is expected to show a drop of over twice that. Yikes.

Cappucci paints a dry yet menacing picture of the results: "When a storm strengthens this quickly, it's a signal of how much air is being drawn into the storm's circulation. It then spirals inward toward the center, rises and exits through the top. If more air is leaving the storm than is sucked inward, the pressure falls even more and the system will continue to grow." A bomb cyclone is also highly correlated with people working themselves into a tizzy while watching the Weather Channel and freaking out all their friends on Facebook.

Figurative Uses Explode in the '50s and '60s

Bomb cyclones aren't unusual, and neither is the use of bomb figuratively: this four-letter word is particularly powerful. In the 1950s, when the world was reeling from the first use of nuclear bombs, bomb took on a variety of new meanings. In that decade, bomb became a slang term for a whole bunch of money. An ancient car became a bomb in Australia. 1961's Coast to Coast: Australian Stories contains some solid advice: "Get out, buy yourself a car... Do as I did, start with a bomb and keep adding a bit and trading it in till you've got what you want."

Bomb has referred to both a failure and success, perhaps due to the dual nature of bombs: they're a horror for one side and a victory for the other, if not a cause for glee. By the sixties, we can find the familiar sense of a comedian or other performer bombing, possibly while being bombarded by tomatoes. This usage has extended to various sorts of failure since the sixties. A 1963 American Speech article gives the definition of bombing as "to fail to pass an examination." A related recent term is dot-bomb: a doc-com that went belly-up, somehow not making everyone involved a billionaire.

Bombared with Bomb Words

Other uses are all over the lexical map. Bombing has had a similar meaning to bumming or roaming: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records 1960s wander-centric uses of the phrases "bombing around town" and "bombed up and down the coastline." As George Carlin noted, football is full of war imagery, and that includes a quarterback throwing bombs—long, looping passes. The more peaceful pursuit of surfing isn't immune to a bomb term, as seen in a 1996 usage from Surfer magazine: "Donnie Solomon rides a bomb behind Kelly Slater and Ross Clarke-Jones." In that case, a bomb is a wave that is not only powerful but, one assumes, tubular.

Many terms have a hint of the violence of actual bombing, but only a hint, fortunately. Google bombing isn't a nuclear attack on the famous company: it's just a term for loading up the internet with links to a page you want to promote. When a logic bomb goes off, you aren't annihilated by reason and facts, but your computer might suddenly have a virus. Similarly, a Napster bomb was a song file that had unadvertised and unwanted content. Meanwhile, since at least 1944, a bug bomb has been the bane of our most annoying enemies, the insects.

Many other slang uses are recorded in Green's Dictionary of Slang. The term bombshell has been used to describe a beautiful woman since the mid-twentieth century. Getting bombed is getting intoxicated, while dropping a bomb verbally is to unload some harsh words or devastating news. Graffiti artists creatively bomb their targets with paint—this is a predecessor to yarn bombing, which doesn't involve the knitting of homemade hand grenades: it refers to adorning statues or other public objects with knitted things as a type of peaceful protest or artistic statement. Of course, if something is the bomb, it's cool, awesome, spectacular, etc.

Back in the gloriously ridiculous 1966 Batman movie starring Adam West, one of the most famous scenes features a hapless Batman running around with a cartoonish explosive held over his head, vainly searching for a safe place to throw the darn thing. His oft-quoted line is, "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb." That's bad news in life, but good news for the lexicon.

Bomb, like its close relative boom, is an irresistible word that helps us describe an unpredictable world that can leave any of us feeling shellshocked and, lately, snowed-over.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.