The US team has been knocked out of the World Cup by Germany, which is a shame but not within the purview of Languagehat. The lead of the NY Times story by Jere Longman, however, is:

There will be no repeat title for the United States in the Women’s World Cup, no tense championship match, no engaging penalty-kick shootout, no additional validating moment for the women’s sports movement that has billowed over the past three decades.

Now, it’s true that one definition of “billow” is ‘to surge,’ but this usage doesn’t work for me or the people I just tried it on here in my weekend retreat. Does it work for anybody out there, or should Ms Longman have written “surged” or “exploded” or “shot up like a startled grouse” or the like?


  1. I read it as “To swell out or bulge: sheets billowing in the breeze“; the movement has expanded in a forward direction, pulling other things along with it. But it is odd.

  2. More accurate than intended, maybe. There’s an implication of “bound to collapse or subside” in “billow” — so often used of things temporarily roused up and inflated by gusts of wind — let’s hope this inadvertently revealed observation was wrong. (I’m a big fan of women’s soccer.)

  3. “Burgeoned”, maybe? I imagine if one burgeons one might also, perhaps, billow – but if one billows, does one, necessarily, burgeon? I fear not.

  4. “Billow” certainly appears odd when applied to a social movement like women’s soccer.
    A “billow” originally meant a sea surge, a swell, a great sea wave–in other words, a formidable watery thing possessed of tremendous upward or forward momentum. It’s still used this way. I checked.
    Nowadays, “billow” and its by-products seem mostly applied to things like clouds, sails, sleeves and curtains–things that are filled and emptied of air in a gradual, pretty manner– which excludes bag pipes.
    Of course, air is similar to water. Birds swim in air, fish fly in water. I understand the extension of “billow” into the air domain because the same wind that feeds the wave fills the sails.
    But, although a wind-filled billowing sail gives a ship great forward momentum, most people think of “billowy” now as soft and puffy, pillowy. A poverty of experience is probably behind this narrowing of sense and “billow’s” loss of kinetic energy. It’s in a domestic rut.
    To use “billowed” for the growing women’s soccer phenom is merely unusual. The writer probably wanted a mere poetic word more than a precise poetic word. But I understand what she means. And you do too.
    Yes, “surged” would have been more usual, or “burgeoned” But “shot up like a startled grouse” is probably too good.

  5. “Billow” seems to me to be one of those verbs with a very restricted set of subject arguments. I think this class of arguments needs to share a kind of airy semantic property. Things “billow” that are easily moved by wind, or that easily move through wind, like smoke, clouds, sails, etc. In particular, I think that things “billow” when they are expanded or appear to expand under the influence of air or wind, as when sails fill with wind, or when clouds of smoke balloon out from a burning house or forest. A cloud doesn’t “billow” just by moving through the sky, maintaining a constant size, and a flag doesn’t “billow” just by flapping in the wind. JHMO

  6. dungbeattle says

    shere desperado looking for a ill wind. Maybe it is the old problem of too many typewriters looking the prize, so lets make one up;

  7. I’m not crazy about “additional validating moment” either-sounds more like Pop Psych jargon than sports reporting.

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