The Grammarphobia Blog

Booby traps

Q: Does the word “boob” (meaning breast) have anything to do with the “bubo” in “bubonic plague”?

A: Well, if you answer language questions day after day for year after year, sooner or later you hear it all!

No, “boob” isn’t etymologically related to “bubo,” a glandular abscess or swelling, usually in the groin or armpits, that’s a symptom of bubonic plague.

The English term “bubo,” dating back to around 1398, comes from the Late Latin bubo, which in turn comes from bubon, the Greek word for groin.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “boob” that’s a slang word for “breast” is probably a shortening of the earlier term “booby,” which was originally “bubby,” a 16th-century word for a woman’s breast.

(There may or may not be a connection with bubbi, German for teat.)

Here are the OED’s earliest citations for these various mammary forms of “boob”:

“bubby,” 1686: “The Ladies here may without Scandal shew / Face or white Bubbies, to each ogling Beau,” from a poem by Thomas D’Urfey.

“booby,” 1934: “She was lying on the divan with her boobies in her hands,” from Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer.

“boob,” 1949: “I felt her sloshy boobs joggling me but I was too intent on pursuing the ramifications of Coleridge’s amazing mind to let her vegetable appendages disturb me,” from Miller’s novel Sexus.

We don’t want to give Henry all the credit for popularizing the one-syllable form, “boob,” though we’re sure he did his part.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an even earlier citation for “boob” in this sense, from the novel Young Lonigan (1931), by James T. Farrell:

“Studs didn’t usually pay attention to how girls looked, except … to notice their boobs, if they were big enough to bounce.”

And there’s another meaning for “booby” and “boob” that you’ve probably heard before.

Since the late 16th or early 17th century, “booby” has been a word for a stupid, awkward person (or, in children’s slang, a cry-baby). This was shortened to “boob” in the early 20th century.

Here are a couple of early examples of “boob” in its klutzy usage:

“I had to tell her the boob had gone for the day” (1909, Saturday Evening Post);

“Of course war is wrong—any boob knows that” (1920, Chambers’s Journal).

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