Bombast in Speech and Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

W.C. Fields
W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield (1935 film).

 Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

A pejorative term for pompous and inflated speech or writing. Adjective: bombastic.

Unlike eloquence, a favorable term for forceful and persuasive discourse, bombast generally refers to "empty rhetoric" or "a windy grandeur of language" (Eric Partridge).

Dickensian Bombast

  • "My dear Copperfield, a man who labors under the pressure of pecuniary embarrassments, is, with the generality of people, at a disadvantage. That disadvantage is not diminished, when that pressure necessitates the drawing of stipendiary emoluments before those emoluments are strictly due and payable. All I can say is, that my friend Heep has responded to appeals to which I need not more particularly refer, in a manner calculated to redound equally to the honor of his head and of his heart."
    (Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens)

Shakespearean Bombast

  • "Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
    Neptune's salt wash, and Tellus' orbed ground;
    And thirty dozen moons, with borrow'd sheen,
    About the world have times twelve thirties been;
    Since love our hearts, and Hymen did our hands,
    Unite communal in most sacred bands."
    (Player King in the play within a play in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act III, scene two)

Bombast and Hyperbole

  • "Bombast and hyperbole . . . are not interchangeable terms. Hyperbole is a figure of thought and one of the devices used to achieve bombast. Bombast is a stylistic mode, a manner of speaking and writing characterized by turgid and inflated language. The Elizabethans seem to have understood bombast to be more of an acoustic and an almost renegade quality of language, in contrast to rhetoric which was generally organized into a system. . . . Hyperbole shares with bombast the force of exaggeration, but not necessarily its lexical limitlessness and inelegance."​
    (Goran Stanivukovic, "Shakespeare's Style in the 1590s." The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare's Poetry, ed. by Jonathan Post. Oxford University Press, 2013)

Alexis de Tocqueville on American Bombast

  • "I have often noted that Americans, who generally conduct business in clear, incisive language devoid of all ornament and often vulgar in its extreme simplicity, are likely to go in for bombast when they attempt a poetic style. In speeches their pomposity is apparent from beginning to end and, seeing how lavish they are with images at every turn, one might think they never said anything simply." ​
    (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

The Lighter Side of Platitudinous Ponderosity

The following remarks on style appeared anonymously in dozens of late-19th-century and early-20th-century periodicals, ranging from Cornhill Magazine and the Practical Druggist to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal. Decide for yourself whether the advice is still appropriate.

In promulgating your esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities, and amicable, philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity.
Let your conversational communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compacted comprehensiveness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency.
Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement and asinine affectation.
Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility and veracious vivacity, without rhodomontade or thrasonical bombast.
Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous prolixity, psittaceous vacuity, ventriloquial verbosity, and vaniloquent vapidity.
Shun double entendres, prurient jocosity, and pestiferous profanity, obscurant or apparent.
In other words, talk plainly, briefly, naturally, sensibly, truthfully, purely. Keep from "slang"; don't put on airs; say what you mean; mean what you say; and don't use big words!

(Anonymous, The Basket: The Journal of the Basket Fraternity, July 1904)

  • "Honey, don't let the blonde hair fool you. Although bombastic forms of circumlocution should be generally avoided, one mustn't shy away from big words in the right context."
    (Aphrodite in "Punch Lines." Xena: Warrior Princess, 2000)

From Medieval Latin, "cotton padding"

Also Known As: grandiloquence

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Bombast in Speech and Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Bombast in Speech and Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Bombast in Speech and Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).