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Searching Google for the history of the slang term "the bomb" (as in "That song is the bomb") yields a number of results in 40s/50s jazz glossaries, but they tend to at best give an artificial example of usage, nothing about the actual history behind the usage. Here's one such glossary (there are numerous others): Jazz Slang.

I'm wondering if this is based on some actual history of the term, or if a bunch of "jazz glossaries" are just copying from each other, especially since there are some other comprehensive glossaries that do not include the term. I also very much thought the term was more modern than the Jazz Era, but I could be falling for the recency fallacy there. Then again, considering that the atomic bomb was dropped in the 40's it's feasible that the term originated in the Jazz scene.

The oldest reference I could find of this usage is from 1973 here, but I don't have access to the OED, so I'm not sure if there's an older reference in there. Several regular dictionaries include this meaning, but either don't list any origin or only say "Origin: US".

I found an article on dictionary.com, Lexical Investigations: Bomb, which mostly focuses on a different related terms (just "bomb" not "the bomb"), but in passing says "the bomb" originated in Great Britain and rubbed off on Americans in the 90's. But it doesn't give any citations or references to support that.

Related question about the term "cool", which did originate in the Jazz scene: Where did the slang usages of "cool" come from?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Summary

I can't find any evidence to suggest this is a jazz term, and the earliest example I found is from 1995. The alternative da bomb dates from at least 1994.

There's no entry in a number of slang dictionaries (A Jazz Lexicon, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Shorter Slang Dictionary, The Slang and Jargon of Drugs and Drink, A Dictionary of Cliches, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, British English A to Zed). This suggests it's a recent term.

'50s claims

Like your linked Jazz Slang, it's often claimed to be 1950s or jazz slang but there's no evidence for it. This list of 50's Slang includes:

The Bomb --- Very cool.

The Crusader's new disc, "Louisiana Hot Sauce" is "the bomb."

The list is undated but was first archived in 2002. Further, The Crusaders' released Louisiana Hot Sauce in 1996. The others all seem to be copies of this (or another).

OED

Although not exactly the same, the closest thing in the OED is:

1e. A success (esp. in entertainment); also U.S., a failure. So phr. like a bomb and varr., with great speed; with considerable effectiveness or success. colloq.

Here's the first and a couple of other quotations:

1954 Amer. Speech 29 99 Like a bomb,..very fast.

1961 New Yorker 28 Oct. 43/2 What had once been called a failure became a ‘bomb’.

1963 The Beatles 5 Once, Paul McCartney and I played Reading as the Nurk Twins. Went down a bomb, I recall.

All the quotations are "a bomb" not "the bomb" and are quite different.

Lexical Investigations

The only relevant quotation from your linked Lexical Investigations: Bomb is fairly recent:

“Your magazine is the bomb! I really like the comics and when you make fun of that Spears girl.”

Spin, September 2002

Google Groups

The earliest "is the bomb" I found in Google Groups (there may be earlier, but Google recently redesigned Groups and crippled the search) is this exchange from August 1996:

On 21 Aug 1996, Cheezmelt wrote:

If I wrote a song, it'd be called " Beck is the Bomb"

And it would be the Bomb.

Or maybe it would be called "Loopity loo and your mom too"

I haven't decided

Geez don't you kids know anything?

whenever something is the bomb,

and you specify that it is THE bomb,

you must follow it with the phrase, YO.

for example, "that shit was the bomb, yo!"

as opposed to:

when something is merely bomb, and there

is no the, then you would say something like

"That's some bomb acid!"

stay in school!

There's nothing before 1996, and quite a few after and into the 2000s and this decade.

Subzin movie subtitles

The earliest I found in film subtitles is the 1995 Spike Lee film Clockers which uses it twice:

00:04:35 # Blue collar comes to bourgeois
00:04:37 # Depressed in your chest... #
00:04:39 - Chuck D is the bomb, boy. - What?
00:04:41 Get the fuck outta here. Chuck D ain't shit.
00:04:44 That nigger Chuck D is assed out, and the rest of Public Enemy.

And:

01:12:18 - One drink? Wasn't drunk? - Nope.
01:12:21 - He was rude. - (Bartender) Yeah.
01:12:26 'Ooh! I'm just gettin' warmed up. But it's The Bomb.'
01:12:30 Was he with anybody?
01:12:33 He came in alone. Might've had a conversation.

The film was released in September 1995 and based on a 1992 book by Richard Price, although the book doesn't appear to use the phrase.

"Da bomb"

There's even more and earlier Google Groups results for the variant da bomb, such as this from soc.culture.filipino in December 1994 ("SCF at REDj is DA BOMB...."):

Actually, "DA BOMB" is part of the continuous urban parlance that Filipino teenagers tend to borrow from African American teenagers. "DA BOMB" is a comprable adjective to such words used in the past, like "swell," "groovy," "cool," "radical," "gnarly," "awesome," "def," and "hype."

Elson
Urban Lingust

Dr. Vicente Rafael, a Filipino-American and an associate professor at UCSD's communications department describes this phenomenon as "downward assimilation"; Filipino-American teenagers borrow the language, clothes, and mannerisms from pop black culture because they perceive it to be a more sexual, more agressive (as in violent) culture, characteristics which they perceive to be wanting in their own native culture.

A few days later in the same group ("*** DA BOMB ***"):

OKay ppl... I haven't been posting as on SCF due to the fact I'm forming a new IRC channel w/ MinMei aka NeuSpeed. This new channel will hopefully be Da BOMB.... N E Wayz... I see that ppl responded to the comment I made at REDj's party...

The Party Was Da BOMB (the best in the West)... and it seems that ppl around here (Elson, Rhett...) no names will be mention seems to put that title to me... Okay Elson... I'll go on an airplane and say to the pilot this "Da BOMB"!!!! =) NE Wayz.... look out for the new channel...

There's an earlier use in comp.sys.mac.apps from July 1994. The post discusses Apple computer crashes ("Has anyone else had problems with Appleshare causing a system bomb on startup?") but the subject seems to be a passing reference to the phrase:

Appleshare and "da BOMB"

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This is quite comprehensive, thanks! I'm curious though what you think about the 1973 reference listed here: books.google.com/… -- do you thank that's just a mistake that it's included here? –  Ben Lee Feb 13 at 16:49
    
It's not clear that in the phrase "the crescent is the bomb", "the bomb" has this meaning. And all the other references listed here, where it's much more obvious that this meaning is being used, date from 1994+. –  Ben Lee Feb 13 at 16:50
    
I don't know. It could be a mistake, it could be an earlier example, it could have a different meaning. (The same definition here has some extra 1994+ quotations.) –  Hugo Feb 13 at 18:24

the Bomb popular usage comes form Parliament and the Pfunk all-stars back in the day. Pfunk uncut funk The bomb now prior to bootsy, and George Clinton and the boys I know not the origins. But I'm very sure popular usage was from that time..and sampled by west coast DJ's took hold in the 90's but it goes way back to the 70's

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That's definitely where I first heard it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothership_Connection from 1975 –  JW01 Apr 29 at 14:28
    
This answer seems to contain useful information but is very hard to read. As this is the English Language and Usage site, could you please proofread for grammar and punctuation? –  Nate Eldredge Apr 29 at 14:35

1982 the who song " athena" is the earliest pop reference i can find that uses the term the bomb as its currently used .

"she's a girl, she's a bomb"

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A link to the lyrics would be helpful in terms of context clues. Is there a link to the mythogical reference? –  livresque Jul 10 at 5:22

I've always heard it came from the TV show Dragnet.

"'Marijuana is the flame, heroin is the fuse, LSD is the bomb'", it's from a 1968 episode called "The Big Prophet."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Twre6ItGEI

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No info regarding the first use, but maybe something about why it is no longer as common as it was. I recall talking about how nobody would use "bomb" in this way when I was working in a law office in New York City shortly after September 11. I was sorry to see "the bomb" go. Does anybody else recall "it's the bomb-digity?" The "bomb-digity" (sp?) was even better than "the bomb

Funny how the nineties seem nicer in retrospect.

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