Dear Word Detective: How did “fustian” come to mean bombast or pretentiousness in speech? Sturdy cotton/linen cloth seems both substantial and unassuming. — Joe Ramsey.
Well, here’s fresh proof that I need new glasses. When I first read your question, I could have sworn it said “faustian,” not “fustian.” For the record, “Faust” has nothing to do with “fustian.” Goethe’s “Faust” is perhaps the most famous telling of the classic German legend of a man who trades his soul to the Devil in return for earthly knowledge and pleasure. “Faustian” as an adjective describes this sort of “deal with the devil” (“Celebrity is a Faustian pact — and privacy isn’t part of the deal,” news headline, 9/22/12).
“Fustian” is a fine old word, which is a nice way of saying that you’re most likely to hear it from the lips of a fine old person or find it in the pages of a fine old book. It first appeared in print around 1200, but, due to the spottiness of the written record, the next occurrence found so far is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales around 1405 (“Of Fustian he wered a gypon”). As you note in your question, “fustian” has two modern meanings: a kind of thick cotton cloth (of the sort from which blankets or work clothes used to be made), and turgid or pompous language, high-sounding and pretentious speech or writing, or simply gobbledygook (“And he, whose Fustian’s so sublimely bad, It is not Poetry, but Prose run mad,” Alexander Pope, 1734). The word “fustian” itself reflects the first sense; via the Old French “fustaigne,” it was derived from Fostat, a suburb of Cairo where the cloth was made at one time.
The use of a word meaning “thick cotton cloth” to mean “boring and pretentious speech or writing” obviously takes some explaining. It apparently comes from the use of thick “fustian” cloth as padding and as a common material for pillowcases. Anyone who has ever suffered through a long, rhetorically overblown speech at a political rally will have noticed that at least eight out of ten words spoken are pure “padding,” meaningless verbal hand-waving with no real content. And “fustian” pillowcases, of course, were made to enclose goose feathers, flighty metaphorical cousins of “horse feathers” as an epithet for “empty nonsense.”
One of the synonyms suggested by any good thesaurus for “fustian” is “bombast,” also meaning “inflated rhetoric” or “pretentious nonsense.” The equivalence is especially apt, because “bombast” originated as a variant of “bombace” (or “bombase”), derived from the Old French “bombace,” meaning “cotton wadding” (from “bombax,” Latin for cotton, itself a corruption of Greek “bombyx,” silk). “Bombast” appeared in the “cotton” sense in the late 16th century, and was immediately pressed into service meaning “verbal padding; meaningless posturing” (“False sublime, known by the name of bombast,” 1762). It’s notable that one of the other uses of “bombast” since that time, both figuratively and literally, has been to mean “earplugs” (“Frame … for your eares the bumbast or stuffing of sufferance and bearing,” 1631).
Fustian nonsense and bombast will probably always be with us, barring a Faustian deal with the Devil, and the internet and cable TV have only opened the spigot of idiocy even wider. That’s why I think the greatest human invention may actually turn out to be the mute button.