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The ‘boo’ in ‘peekaboo’

Q: I’m a mom with an almost 2-year-old son. One of his favorite games is peek-a-boo. With Halloween coming up, I wonder if there’s any connection between the “boo” to scare someone and the “boo” in “peek-a-boo.”

A: Yes, there is a connection between the “boo” used to scare people on Halloween and the “boo” in the children’s game “peekaboo,” a term now usually written without hyphens.

The word for the game is a compound made of the verb “peek,” the combining form “-a-,” and an exclamation (variously spelled over the years as “bo,” “boe,” “boh,” “boo,” and “bough”) intended to surprise or frighten someone.

The exclamation was spelled “bo” when it first appeared in writing in the 16th century (it was certainly used much earlier in speech). The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an anonymous medieval tale of a blacksmith who fashions a woman at his forge. Here he asks her to speak and say “bo”:

“Speke now let me se, / And say ones bo / Than he toke her by the heed / And sayd dame art thou deed” (A Treatyse of the Smyth Whych That Forged Hym a New Dame, 1565). Scholars say the poem was composed around 1360; the OED’s 1565 citation is from the most complete copy known to exist.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the exclamation clearly used in its scary sense is from a long poem inspired by London’s plague of 1625: “When a child cryes boh / To fright his Nurse” (from Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628, by George Wither, an English pamphleteer, satirist, and poet).

And here’s an example with the usual modern spelling: “Boo is a word that’s used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying Children” (from The Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1692, by J. Curate, a pseudonym).

The OED defines the compound “peekaboo” as “a game played with a young child which involves hiding oneself, or one’s face, and suddenly reappearing, saying ‘peekaboo.’ ” However, the OED’s earliest written example uses the term figuratively. Here a wife dismisses her husband’s romantic overtures as child’s play:

“I’le lay my life this is my hus­bands dotage, I thought so, nay neuer play peeke-boe with me, I know you do nothing but studie how to anger me sir” (The Comicall Satyre of Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600, a play by Ben Jonson).

Undoubtedly, the term was used literally to mean the game itself in speech long before 1600. However, the dictionary’s first literal example in writing is from a 19th-century novel about an orphan girl who unravels the mystery of her parentage:

“Little Nina, grown more bold climbed up beside him, and poised upon one foot, her fat arm resting on his neck, played ‘peek-a-boo’ beneath the shade, screaming at every ‘peek,’ ‘I seen your eyes, I did’ ” (Darkness and Daylight, an 1864 novel by the American writer Mary Jane Holmes).

The word “boo” has had several other meanings since it first appeared (in the form of “bo”) as “an inarticulate spoken sound or exclamation, esp. one made abruptly in order to surprise or frighten,” according to citations in the OED.

The most common is “a sound used to express disdain, contempt, disapproval,” as in this Oxford example: “I’ve heard the folks laugh at that sign; And one crie boo: another chuckled” (from Poor Vulcan, 1778, a comic opera by the English composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin).

Similarly, the dictionary says, “peekaboo” has had a variety of senses since it first showed up in writing at the beginning of the 17th century.

The senses include clothes with a pattern of holes that let the wearer’s body be seen (1895 as an adjective; 1908 as a noun); a hairstyle that conceals one eye (1948, adjective; 1968, noun); and a fighting style in which the boxer protects his face with gloves, then suddenly delivers a surprise punch (1960, adjective).

Finally, here’s a recent example that we’ve found for “peekaboo” used in its original sense of a children’s game:

“Peekaboo is a game played over the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. Why is it so universal? Perhaps because it’s such a powerful learning tool” (from an April 17, 2014,  BBC feature, “Why all babies love peekaboo”).

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