English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Bobby pins, bobby socks, and bobbies

Q: What is the origin of the “bobby” in “bobby pins”? Is it related to the one in “bobby socks” or the “bobby” walking a beat in London?

A: The “bobby” in “bobby pins” and “bobby socks” (or “sox”) is believed to come from the use of “bob” and “bobbed” in reference to something shortened.

“Bobby pins” originally referred to sprung pins used with bobbed hair, while “bobby socks” referred to ankle socks, presumably because they were a shortened, or bobbed, version of knee socks.

The slang term for a police officer is understood to come from the given name of Robert Peel, who was England’s Home Secretary when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed in the early 19th century. In fact, bobbies are also called “peelers.”

As for the etymology, the noun “bob” first appeared in Middle English when it meant a bunch of leaves, flowers, fruit, and so on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a chivalric romance written in the late 1300s:

“Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe, Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare” (“But in one hand he held a bunch of holly, that is greatest in green when groves are bare”).

That early sense of “bob” evolved over the centuries to mean, among other things, bobbed hair.

In the 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “a knot or bunch of hair such as that in which women sometimes do up their back hair.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation refers to a wig with “the side or bottom locks turned up into Bobs or Knots, tied up with Ribbons” (from The Academy of Armory, 1688, by Randle Holme).

In the 18th century, “bob” came to mean “a horse’s tail docked short; a short knob-like tail.” The first Oxford example refers to “a high bob unusual in Horses” (The London Gazette, Dec. 1, 1711).

A century later, the OED says, the verb “bob” took on the sense of “to dock, cut short (a horse’s tail, etc.).” The dictionary cites this 1822 example describing feral horses:

“Two of them must have been in Hands [domesticated], as their tails were Bobed short” (from The Journal of Jacob Fowler, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1898).

In the early 20th century, the noun “bob” took on the modern sense of “a style of cutting women’s hair short and even all round,” as well as “hair cut in this way,” the OED says.

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Silver Spoon (1926), one of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels: “Her hair, again in its more natural ‘bob’, gleamed lustrously under the light.”

Getting back to your question, Oxford defines a “bobby pin” as “a kind of sprung hair-pin or small clip, originally for use with bobbed hair.” It says the etymology is uncertain, but points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a newspaper in Nyack, NY: “Her locks have just reached that trying length that require the existence of a ‘bobby pin’ ” (Rockland County Evening Journal, Oct. 2, 1928).

The OED’s first citation is from a novel published a few years later: “She wondered whether she had lost all the bobby-pins from her marcelled hair” (If I Have Four Apples, 1936, by Josephine Lawrence).

As for “bobby socks,” the OED defines them as “socks reaching just above the ankle, esp. those worn by girls in their teens.” It describes the etymology as uncertain, but again points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “Any bobby socks around school all week?” (from “The Hatchet,” a column about La Habra Grammar Schools in La Habra Star, May 29, 1929).

Oxford’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, describes the scene at a Frank Sinatra concert: “In CBS’s Manhattan playhouse, at the Paramount, at the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, hundreds of little long-haired, round-faced girls in bobby socks sat transfixed” (Time magazine, July 26, 1943).

Finally, we come to the constabulary “bobby.” Oxford defines it as “a slang nickname for a policeman” that’s “probably in allusion to the name of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary when the new Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1828.”

The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, is from testimony in a burglary case tried June 10, 1844, at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court:

“I heard her say something, but could not understand what it was exactly—I could not understand whether it was ‘a crush’ or ‘a bobby’—I cannot swear that I heard any words of that kind—I heard her say something—it was a signal to let them know a policeman was coming” (from Old Bailey Proceedings Online).

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