The question came up: If referring to a person as a word for a female body part in an insulting manner is sexist, then isn’t calling a man a “boob” sexist?

(I may or may not have referred to some guy as a boob.)

My first reaction was to simply say, “No, because a boob, in this sense has nothing to do with female body parts. It is a dunce, idiot, stupid or bumbling person, etc.” However, often, when we make assumptions about the origin of a word we are wrong. And since part of that conversation was about whether using the word “hysterical” was sexist, even if one did not know the origin of the term, I thought I’d better look it (boob) up. So I did. Turns out, I was right. “Boob” is just what I say above. So now you know.

But in the process of looking it up I came across another tidbit which is much more obscure, probably wrong, and won’t be of much interest to most people but it was of interest to me so I’ll mention it. It is probably true (as I had assumed) that “boob” comes from “booby”, and here’s the description from Dictionary.com of the origin of “booby”:

1590–1600; earlier pooby, apparently blend of poop to befool (now obsolete) and baby; ( def. 2 ) perhaps by association with Spanish bobo < Latin balbus stuttering.

And what is interesting about this is that even though the Spanish “bobo” may derive from the Latin “balbus” it is also true that in parts of Central Africa, the word “bobo” means someone who does not speak at all, does not speak properly, speaks foolishly, or who does not speak the prevailing languages. There are, of course, Portuguese words spoken in the same region because of the Portuguese influence on KiSwahili which then became an overarching trade language and, in turn, influenced other languages. So the language from which I know “bobo” is KiNande, but it could also be KiNguana, a western dialect of KiSwahili

The on line Living KiSwahili Dictionary has “bobo” as referring to two distinct nuts. I can verify the use of “bobo” to refer to one of these nuts on Google Translator. I’m not much impressed by that because once you get outside of Tanzania, animal and plant names in KiSwahili are probably often local non-KiSwahili names absorbed by the language. (The KiNande dictionary does not list the word at all.)

Finally, I looked “bobo” up in Portuguese … in that language, “bobo” means fool. Perfect. The term is shared by Spanish and Portuguese, and apparently, at least one obscure Central African language which has other Portuguese words in it from colonial times.

So, when someone calls you a boob, they are expressing a sentiment that has been expressed around the world in many languages, although not necessarily about you in particular. The origin of the word is probably still Latin, spread via Portuguese colonization in East Africa into that region where perhaps it resides here and there atop the other local languages, but not necessarily in KiSwahili or any of its many variants. We need to send linguists to check KiNande (aka Konzu) for more Portuguese.

Meanwhile, is there any chance at all that “boob” as in “fool” comes from “boob” as in “breast”? I think not, but in case you are still giving that any consideration let me remind you of an important linguistic rule. Everything is a word for female breasts; at one time or another, any given word may or may not be used as slang to refer to breasts. I’m not sure why that is the case, but it seems to be.

Comments

  1. #1 William Truderung
    July 23, 2012

    I wonder if the word “booby” referring to a type of sea bird is related to any of the above?

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    July 23, 2012

    Well, they’;re not among the tits.

  3. #3 Alan(UK)
    July 23, 2012

    The British English for ‘tidbit’ is ‘titbit’. This of course opens another whole can of worms.

  4. #4 sailor
    July 23, 2012

    William there is certainly a connection there. Boobys mainly evolved far from humans so when on their nests do not take flight but kind of look at you. This made it easy for the Sailors to grab them, steal the eggs and eat the bird. Thus they were considered stupid.
    However it may be that the bird was called a booby because it meant dumb ass, rather than the name of the bird coming first and then referring to others.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    July 23, 2012

    William: Yes. The booby is the foolish bird. Exactly. Sailor, right. The booby is in the etymology, I just didn’t mention it.

  6. #6 F
    July 23, 2012

    And this is why it would be utterly strange to find the word “booby” to be referring to breasts in the phrase “booby hatch”.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    July 23, 2012

    We need sailor on this; a booby hatch is a boat thing, or in slang, a mental institution. Right?

  8. #8 MadScientist
    July 23, 2012

    Boobies and Dodos – Boobies are still around so they may not be such Dodos after all. I don’t know what to say about the tits, shags, and other such birds.

  9. #9 Carmelo Mangano
    Linguaglossa - Sicily
    July 27, 2012

    In the part of Sicily where I live, near Mount Etna, we use the word “babbu” referring to a silly person.
    At the same time, when I was a child, some grown-ups used the same word to speak about the vagina in a joking way.
    Carmelo Mangano

  10. #10 surdas
    Gatineau, QC
    July 8, 2014

    What did you decide about “hysterical”?

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    July 8, 2014

    Here’s what I think: The word is sexist. It is far more often used to refer to women, has a long and recent history of referring to a trait women have and men don’t (supposedly) etc. Therefore don’t use it.

    However, people use the word without realizing that and they should not be crucified for it. Perhaps it should just be mentioned and they can adjust.

    The rubber meets the road when a person uses the word to refer to a woman being upset about something, is told it may be seen as a sexist word, then that person digs in and starts making arguments about how it is not sexist.

    Truth is, it is hard to know where to draw the line between older uses that may have been offenses and newer uses that may not be. But for ‘hysterical” the line needs not be drawn any more. The challenge over the word has happened enough in recent years, responded to by anti-feminist and sexist digging in, that it is no longer just a word with a bad history, it is now a dog whistle.

    This is all complicated by the fact that the word is also used to mean “really really funny.” I know feminist women who balk at seeing the word used in reference to a woman being upset who call things “hysterical” when they are really funny, and I’m pretty sure don’t even realizing they are using a word in that context they would not use at other times, because the word (as something really really funny) seems to fit so well.

    No sense fighting over that, I’d say.