In his State of the Union address last week the president said he wants to build more and better bombs in response to Kim Jung Un continually threatening to drop bombs on us
Sane people know both sides are engaging in crazy talk. Specifically, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has announced its “Doomsday Clock” now reads at two minutes to midnight.
But belligerent bullies in high office are not the only threat we’ve faced lately. It turns out that the erroneous January 13th Hawaiian missile attack alert was not caused by an employee mistakenly pressing the wrong button, as was initially reported. Instead, he received an alert message which contained the scary wording “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
He was supposed to notice that this was preceded by the word “exercise” repeated three times, but understandably he overlooked that when he read “this is not a drill”—a phrase that had never been included in earlier practice exercises. He pushed the button he thought he was supposed to.
And what about that long delay before the Hawaiian governor retweeted the reassuring message that there was no missile threat? Turns out he was having a hard time figuring out his Twitter password—you know, that thing that’s supposed to provide security?
So we’re faced with two kinds of nuclear war threats: crazy and stupid.
As I’ve noted before, the prospect of nuclear war is almost unbearably difficult to think about, and Americans have engaged in all kinds of maneuvers to avoid seriously confronting it. Sometimes it can only be entertained in satire, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 anti-bomb satire Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Unfortunately the film did not stimulate any widespread agitation against the nuclear threat, partly I think because it made nuclear catastrophe seem inevitable.
We’re dealing with language here, so I thought I’d focus for a bit on the word “bomb” itself. Note that the film title uses the phrase “The Bomb” to mean specifically not only nuclear weapons, but the explosion of nuclear weapons—a usage common in the previous decade.
Famously, Tom Lehrer had used the phrase earlier in his classic satirical song “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
All that said, “bomb” has a host of other meanings. I started musing on this subject when I heard a commentary on Trump’s attempt to impose high tariffs on Canada’s Bombardier aircraft, in defense of Boeing Corporation. I used to fly on Bombardiers fairly often, and always wondered why a civilian aircraft would be named after the air combat officer responsible for actually dropping bombs.
Turns out “Bombardier” was the name of the founder of the aircraft company, a Francophone Quebecois whose most famous invention was the snowmobile—in which you could go bombing along a slippery winter trail. The family name is in fact derived from an old French expression for a good (bon) guy.
So, friendly—not hostile.
Then my mind wandered to the old-fashioned slang expression “blonde bombshell,” used to label a sexy woman, and realized that a movie starring a bombshell could itself be a “bomb” (flop).
Of course 90s slang gave “bomb” a positive sense, usually rendered as “da bomb” as in the enthusiastic expression “you da bomb!”
A bombshell can also be a surprise. Time bombs can threaten nasty future surprises. The phrase “ticking bomb” has the same meaning.
Reckless politicians are often called “bomb throwers.” In their threatening speeches they may indulge in “bombast,” but it turns out this is a word for a kind of cotton-wool stuffing, and signifies a sort of rhetorical padding: “inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject; ‘fustian’; ‘tall talk’” [Oxford English Dictionary].
I thought of a couple of culinary uses with savory connotations: the French globular dessert called a bombe and the “Lancashire Bomb” made by Shorrocks Cheese which comes as a ball of cheese coated in black wax with a protruding “fuse.” It seems designed to resemble the cartoon bombs traditionally associated with crazed terrorists.
Certain illicit drugs have been called “bombs.” Oddly enough, the Cassell Dictionary of Slang notes that “bomb” has been also used to mean both “a dilapidated, run-down old car” and its opposite: “a fast car.”
But these are mere distractions. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with a president who seems enamored of both feminine bombshells and literal bombs, and who engages in rhetorical bomb-throwing of the most dangerous sort.
If only “bombs away!” meant “get away from those damned bombs!”