Tag Archives: bombinate


I was not in London during World War II; I was born two dozen years later, in Canada. But I have heard and read about what it was like there and then, under aerial assault by the Germans. One of the more striking things mentioned was the buzz bomb. It was an early cruise missile, propeller driven, with an odometer that triggered an aerodynamic jam when its destination had been reached, forcing it into a steep dive. The steep dive caused fuel flow to the engine to stop (not vice versa, as is often thought). The effect from ground level was that the buzzing of the engine was audible, and everyone hoped it would keep buzzing, but if it stopped, then the next thing was a dreadful silence, and then an explosion.

This is what bombinate makes me think of. Bombinate does not mean “bomb” noun or verb, however; it is the noise the buzz bombs made before the engine cut out. It is also the hum of a bumblebee. And one might use it to characterize the sound of the bombard, a reed instrument – bombard does mean “buzzer,” after all. Yes, bombard also means a stone-throwing engine, and from that it means the act of using such an engine; the engine got its name because Latin bombus could also mean “boom” (boom is related to bombus, too) or “hum.” Bombard does not come from bomb; it’s actually been in English longer, in fact. But bomb comes from the noise that bombs make – the booming, not the buzzing. And bombinate, for its part, does not seem to buzz at all, not to my ears; hum, even boom, but not buzz. Well, it can mean “drone” or “hum” as well. But there it is. The bombus is innate in it, innit?

Bombinate is actually based on a bit of dodgy Latin; the proper Latin for the same thing was bombitare, but Rabelais wrote, in a satire of subtle scholarly distinctions, about “Questio subtilissima, utrum chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundas intentiones”: the very subtle question of whether a chimera bombinating in a vacuum is able to eat second intentions. I suppose the answer is that colourless green ideas sleep furiously. But we do have some sense, at least, of the vast number of second intentions a bombinating bomb could consume in a silent instant in London.

My thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting this word.