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Bombshell is a term used to describe very attractive women, similar to the term "sex symbol". The phrase was notably used as the title of a 1930's film, which incidentally lead to its lead actress being nicknamed a "blond bombshell", although the term may have been in use long before that.

Where did this term come from, and why? What's the relation between bombshells and attractive women?

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I have specifically watched 100s of WWI documentaries and have heard the GIs use it in said docs. I don't have sources so I won't leave it as an answer. Also all of the answers below are really long comments and not answers. Really should have guidelines on answering historical language questions... –  RyeɃreḁd Oct 25 '13 at 17:15
    
@RyeBread if you can bring evidence that "bombshell" was used to describe women as far back as WWI I'll put a bounty on the question. Just leave me a comment so I can activate it. I won't promise that you'll get the bounty, but I do think your answer will generate some interest. (With permission from congusbongus of course.) –  Mari-Lou A Oct 29 '13 at 7:49
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4 Answers

The OED's first quotation for a bombshell describing a woman is 1942, but it was indeed the title of a 1933 film starring Jean Harlow. In fact, the film was later renamed to The Blonde Bombshell so it's possible Harlow got the nickname from the movie.

(It appears in a number of 1933 snippets in Google Books which could be misdated, but look correct.)

The earliest verifiable example I found is in the Spokane Daily Chronicle - Nov 24, 1933:

But it seems that Mr. [Lee] Tracy stepped out on a balcony in his pajamas and made wild gestures during a Mexico City parade, and now Mr. Tracy, a star with a long list of hits from "Blessed Event" to "The Blonde Bombshell" behind him, is no longer with at least not until things are "straightened out," if they ever are.

And from the UK:

R, H., 1933, Dec 09. THREE NEW FILMS. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959), 16:

Two of them, "The Cradle Song" and "L'Ordonnance," are by famous authors, the first Sierra and the second Maupassant, and have European stars, but the only completely successful one is the one with the least pretension, "Blonde Bombshell," at the Empire.

The next day's Observer explains the name.

LEJUNE, C.A., 1933, Dec 10. The Pictures. The Observer (1901- 2003), 12. ISSN 00297712:

And it is worth mentioning, in passing, that Hollywood cannot be blamed for the title. It is we, the audience, who have spoilt an arresting and altogether unusual title with that ridiculous adjective. When the film first came out in Hollywood, it was called "Bombshell," tout court. But the public stayed away because they thought it was a war picture. "Blonde Bombshell" was the final compromise between dynamics and security. ...

The story is nothing but a snatched handful of experiences form the life of Lola Burns, star of stars in the Monarch studios. She is their "It Girl," or, alternatively, their Blonde Bombshell--eruptive, starry-eyed, warm-hearted, a little fatuous.


Edit: Bill Mullins found slightly earlier references:

The San Diego Evening Tribune 1 Nov 1933 p 8A col 5 has an ad for the film (titled "Bombshell") with the line "A Blonde Bombshell in the Picture That Has Thrown Hollywood Into Consternation!"

The LA Times of that day has a small ad (sec II p 8 col 5) that reads: "Last Times Today Jean Harlow Lee Tracy "The Blonde Bombshell" as if that were the film's title.

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Thank you for the thorough research but this doesn't answer the question. The film used the word bombshell because it was already part of common slang. The word came from WWI GI slang. You can't say a word came from something because it was the first use you could find when googling. If they used it for a movie title to describe a girl (especially in 1933) then obviously it had use well before. –  RyeɃreḁd Oct 24 '13 at 14:14
    
I'm not really sure what the added benifit is of digging up three print references to a movie we have already ascertained existed. –  T.E.D. Oct 24 '13 at 14:48
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@T.E.D. It's evidence that the film was renamed to "The Blonde Bombshell" in 1933, which also antedates the Oxford English Dictionary's 1942. Harlow was nicknamed the blonde bombshell (sometimes today called 'the original blonde bombshell'. Perhaps she got the nickname from the film. Perhaps only after that it became a known phrase. Or perhaps it was already was in use before that. Perhaps the film just popularised it. Perhaps not. But at least it's putting some stakes in the ground about the origin with print evidence. –  Hugo Oct 24 '13 at 18:04
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@RyeBread: It's definitely possible bombshell was used during WWI to refer to a woman this way (although it was definitely used figuratively), but without documentary evidence we can't be sure. Is there even anecdotal evidence of its use then from someone who was alive then? / Do you know when was bucket list first used? I've not been able to find anything relevant before the film. / Also, if you have evidence of "G.I." referring to an enlisted US soldier before WWII, please share too :) –  Hugo Oct 25 '13 at 7:21
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The LEJUNE article suggests that this film popularized the term, because at release time “the public stayed away because they thought [Bombshell referred to] a war picture.” Unless you actually have some support for the claim that the slang meaning significantly predates the film, instead of just insinuating that it probably did, you're impugning a good answer for no good reason. I find these kind of “this is not an answer, it's a verbose comment” criticisms non-constructive and hostile. –  Bradd Szonye Oct 26 '13 at 0:17
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If a woman is so incredibly stunning, you'd say she blows your mind 1. The rush of adrenaline a man feels when looking at a woman they have a strong sexual attraction to can be almost violent in nature. Some people even speak of their hearts exploding with joy.

A bombshell is a powerful weapon and its effects can be devastating, likewise the effects of a sexually attractive woman typically on men.

EDIT and further reflections.

As I read the wikipedia link posted by Congusbongus, I saw that the original title for the film was indeed Bombshell 2 and I began to read the plot of the story. The story has nothing related to war or any type of aggressive conflict. So why the title? What did it mean? And why was it changed to the Blonde Bombshell so soon after its release?

Well the story is a comedy about a famous film star, played by Jean Harlow, and how she abandons Hollywood to pursue a more normal life. She falls in Love with a wealthy man who has no idea of who she is in real life and subsequently proposes marriage. She accepts but before they get married her real identity is revealed to her fiancé and his parents by her studio publicist. On hearing the truth, her wealthy lover and his parents reject her and call off the marriage. Lola (Jean Harlow) shocked, returns to her old world, Hollywood.

It's clear from this context that the meaning of the title, bombshell, only made any sense at the end of the story i.e. the bombshell is the news that Lola Burns was a famous movie star. Likewise Gifford Middleton, her fiancé, drops (dumps) her like a bomb, so the original title is actually a clever play on words.

Jean Harlow despite her very young age, was already a huge star in Hollywood, she had starred in several "block buster movies", among them Platinum Blonde released two years earlier in 1931. The public by now had identified Harlow as the sexy (platinum) blonde star and simply tagged the blonde epithet to the film title, MGM renamed the movie and the rest is history as they say.enter image description here

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According to etymonline.com "blows your mind" is recorded as being used in 1967; I suspect "bombshell" pre-dates it. –  congusbongus Oct 24 '13 at 8:16
    
Was in use BY 1967. The point I was making, and which you also asked for, was the connection between bombshells and women used in the positive sense of course. Something which I forgot to add and no doubt someone will pick up on :) –  Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '13 at 8:35
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This may be useful as a mnemonic, but I don't see any evidence that this is the source of the word itself. –  T.E.D. Oct 24 '13 at 14:51
    
@T.E.D. I never suggested that this was the source of "bombshell" I, hopefully, explained and illustrated that sex appeal can be expressed via more aggressive and hence, more virile terms. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '13 at 18:08
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When Jean Harlow, a platinum blonde, starred in Bombshell in 1933, the term bomb-shell had already been in use for at least 73 years (etymonline.com) in the sense of a "shattering or devastating thing or event." In most of her films, Harlow "was sluttish and smart, cracking gum and one-liners simultaneously: chewing up the scenery as the vulgar star of Bombshell" (Molly Haskell). It stands to reason to conclude that the blonde bombshell, first attested in 1942, was derived directly from Jean Harlow's persona. That, however, is not a felicitous answer to the question of why the filmmakers of Bombshell chose exactly that metaphor over another similar one. Wasn't, say, a volcano, likewise both an event and a thing, just as fitting a metaphor? Its erruption (~ explosion) is shattering. And devastating. Could the bombshell have been, simply, an arbitrary choice? Not likely.

It had been only 15 years since the end of the Great War, and the notion of sudden devastation by bombing was still omnipresent, what with all the unexploded bombshells strewn around England, not to mention the Western Front ("iron harvest"). Devastating and love (a common euphemism for passion) often go together and always have. And then, there was also the shape of the thing—the thing—which might've been an additional reason why not the more frequent word bomb was chosen, but rather the bombshell, the former having some, whether more or less, abstract realizations, and the latter certainly being more denotative of a thing, of an object, i.e., of the woman-object. The bomb was waved aside despite its not yet having become burdened by the secondary meanings of success, a failure, a marijuana cigarette, a large sum of money (all those meanings sprung up after 1933, according to OED); and despite its being synonymous with bombshell. Interesting. The shape, then. Well, a picture being worth a thousand words:

enter image description here

enter image description here

OK, two words: mammary, phallic.

Here it might be opportune to quote Wikipedia, "The term bombshell is a forerunner to the term "sex symbol" and originally used to describe popular female sex icons. Modern slang refers to a bombshell as an extremely sexually attractive woman."

At the peril of sounding like a feminist, I'll posit that this sort of labeling is a typical male thing. Wasn't the "bullet bra" ("torpedo bra") invented by a man? (Yes it was, by Howard Hughes, no less, in 1941.) That military terminology crept into the civilian life was, understandably, partly due to the vicissitudes of the times, but I think it has just as much to do with the old story of sex and violence. So there you have it.

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Harlow's film Bombshell was renamed The Blonde Bombshell in the same year, so can also be found in 1933. See my answer. –  Hugo Oct 24 '13 at 19:06
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Thanks, Hugo. I saw your answer, but only after submitting mine. An important piece of information in your A is that the movie hadn't been named Bombshell in a literal sense, and was later billed as The Blond Bombshell only to ensure it was read figuratively. It remains a puzzle whether the people at MGM created the label or merely borrowed it. –  Talia Ford Oct 24 '13 at 21:08
    
Yes, it definitely already existed as a figurative use, but whether it was already in use to describe a woman is unknown. –  Hugo Oct 25 '13 at 7:04
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OED has

bombshell A shattering or devastating act, event, etc. Phr. blonde bomb-shell, a fair-haired person, esp. a woman, of startling vitality or physique.

Using the word bombshell describes the (metaphorical) effect the person has on the observer.

Glitters20.com

OED's earliest citation for Blonde bombshell is

1942 L. V. Berrey & M. Van den Bark Amer. Thes. Slang §184/14 Blonde Bombshell (as a nickname).

... so if you have documentary evidence of an earlier use they would probably like to know.

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You should submit earlier evidence to the OED here. –  Hugo Oct 24 '13 at 10:57
    
I have trouble giving this answer much credit, as the question itself contains an earlier reference (one that isn't particularly hard to find, either). –  T.E.D. Oct 24 '13 at 14:53
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@T.E.D. "What's the relation between bombshells and attractive women?" –  Andrew Leach Oct 24 '13 at 15:00
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