“Bombshell” has become a much quoted word associated with the impeachment news for the past three years. Any new revelation was considered a “bombshell”, certain to convict President Donald Trump and remove him from office. Ben Zimmer’s column, Word on the Street, in the February 1, 2020 Wall Street Journal shed some light on the origin of this word.
The word combines “bomb” which originated in the late 1500s from the French ‘bombe”, “ultimately from Latin ‘bombus’ meaning a booming sound- with ‘shell’, an old English word for a hard covering that came into military use for hollow objects filled with explosives.” On January 27, 1706, John Moody, a British officer serving in the Canadian colony of Newfoundland, “sent a letter reporting on the defense of the fort of St. John’s, which was under siege by French forces during the Queen Anne’s War. Moody wrote: “I was forced to fix planks and throw up earth to cover them; and also to make long wooden troughs for carrying bombshells and granadoes (grenades) to secure the ditch”. By the early 19th century, “bombshell” had become common for describing “shocking revelations” in the media.
In 1817, the New York Evening Post described a letter making “damaging claims” about members of the Democratic Republican Party in Pennsylvania. The letter “exploded among them like a bombshell”, Zimmer wrote. Soon enough, “bombshell could stand on its own as a metaphor, especially in politics”, he concluded. The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1867 led to an increased use of the term. During WW I, a popular vaudeville entertainer, Eve Tanguay, was billed as a “bombshell of joy”. Actress Jean Harlow brought the term more “notoriety” in 1933 when she starred in romantic movie comedy titled “Blonde Bombshell”. Harlow is still remembered as the original “blonde bombshell”.
The “Bolton Bombshell” was the shorthand favored by news outlets in the reports on allegations in Bolton’s book regarding the impeachment of President Trump.