explode

The last post dealt with the Latin verb plaudere that meant ‘to clap, strike, beat,’ and with the aplaudir/applaud that we’ve taken from the compound that the Romans created by adding the prefix ad ‘to, toward.’ But to every action, as physicists tell us, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in this case the Romans also created a compound of plaudere using a prefix that had the opposite sense of ad: it was ex, which meant ‘out of, away from.’ The result was explodere, which Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary explains this way:

to drive out or off by clapping; orig. a scenic* word said of a player, to hiss or hoot off, explode him.

That certainly sounds strange to us, because, as bad as an actor may be, we’d rarely resort to blowing him up. But listen to what Noah Webster wrote in his dictionary in 1828 for explode used transitively:

EXPLO’DE, v.t. To decry or reject with noise; to express disapprobation of, with noise or marks of contempt; as, to explode a play on the stage. Hence,

1. To reject with any marks of disapprobation or disdain; to treat with contempt, and drive from notice; to drive into disrepute; or in general, to condemn; to reject; to cry down. Astrology is now exploded.

That sense is still with us when we speak (in English) of exploding a myth, which is to say driving it out of believability in the same way that ancient Romans would drive a bad actor off the stage by making noise, booing, hissing, clapping, etc. Because of that, explode became associated with making noise, regardless of the purpose of the noise. In particular, explode came to be associated with certain types of physical reactions that make a loud noise, namely those of devices or objects that blow up and wreak destruction. That sense of explode is now the primary one, and any connections to the theater have long since exploded and vanished.

Corresponding to the verb explotar/explode is the noun explosión/explosion, and from the noun Spanish has made the new verb explosionar, which avoids the ambiguity of explotar, which can also mean ‘to exploit.’ (Spanish explotar is really two unrelated verbs that happened to end up looking alike; the one that means ‘to exploit’ was borrowed from French exploiter, as was English exploit.)

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* The old sense of scenic was ‘having to do with a scene,’ i.e. with a theatrical stage.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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