The Grammarphobia Blog

Booby hatch

Q: In the Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men, Crooks teases Lennie that he’ll end up in a booby hatch. Can you tell me something about the term “booby hatch” and how it came to mean a mental institution?

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes this usage as “offensive slang,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “booby hatch” as a psychiatric hospital, without a negative label.

The word “booby” has meant a dummy or nincompoop for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says it probably comes from the Spanish word bobo, meaning a fool or dunce, but Daniel Cassidy suggests in How the Irish Invented Slang that it might be of Gaelic origin.

The earliest citation for “booby” in the OED dates from the late 17th century. Here’s one from Samuel Johnson, via James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791): “Sir, we are a city of philosophers, we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.”

In the 19th century, the word “booby” was attached to a whole bunch of words to create such phrases as “booby prize,” “booby trap,” and “booby hatch.” At first, “booby hatch” referred to a police station house or a covering over a hatchway, according to the OED. (It’s still a nautical term for a covering over a hatchway.)

By the late 19th century, the term was being used in reference to a mental hospital, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Here’s an example from the P.G. Wodehouse novel Laughing Gas (1936): “What, tell people you’re me and I’m you. Sure we could, if you don’t mind being put in the booby-hatch.”

And how, you may ask, did “booby hatch” come to mean a mental hospital? Word detectives have several theories, but the one I like best is a suggestion in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that it may have something to do with the word “hatch” in the name of the old Colney Hatch Asylum in London.

The mental institution, which operated under various names from 1851 to 1993, was in the Colney Hatch district of the London Borough of Barnet. Over the years, the name “Colney Hatch” became a catch phrase for a mental institution.

Wodehouse, for example, used both “booby hatch” and “Colney Hatch” in his comic novels. Here’s an example of the latter from Uncle Fred in Springtime (1939): “He’ll probably end his days in Colney Hatch.”

The “hatch” in “Colney Hatch” apparently refers to a one-time gate into a nearby wood, according to the Borough of Barnet’s website. And “Colney” may have something to do with a long-forgotten person named Col, the website says.

One final note about “booby.” The earliest OED reference to the word as slang for a woman’s breast appears in (you guessed it) Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934): “She was lying on the ground with her boobies in her hands.”

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