October 22, 2013 | Graham

Have boobs displaced breasts?

I’ve always had a slightly antique turn of phrase. It comes from early exposure to the King James version of the bible and as a child being allowed to pick-up and read any book in our house, whenever it was written.

But I’ve also thought I was very sensitive to the nuance of language, partly as a result of the activities outlined in the first paragraph. I’m certainly no fuddy-duddy demanding that the meanings of words be preserved just as they were the day they first brought into existence. Indeed that would be impossible as words are not that precise. Once they are used more than once, many of them lose their shiny bright exactness. Nouns may be fairly precise – the sun is always sol that we see in our sky – but adjectives are very slippery.

Even lexicographers whose job it is to maintain the meanings of words spend most of their time enumerating the various meanings of words at the moment, and the rest, what they meant in the past. One of the greatest pleasures in discovering the multi-volume OED in the Under Grad library was the archaeological delving into origins and derivations – who used this word first, where and when?

So I was surprised to be laughed at the other day by some of those closest to me when I referred to the human mammary glands as “breasts”.

Apparently anyone under 50 now refers to one of those parts of the body most celebrated in art and culture as “boobs”.

As if to confirm this fact, a huge billboard stands at the Valley Fiveways, above where the brothel used to be, declaring “Bonds is for boobs” – apparently the brassiere is no longer for breasts.

I’m hoping I’m wrong, and it’s just a teenage girl thing to refer to breasts as boobs, because it seems a completely inadequate word for such beautiful things.

And I say “beautiful things” advisedly. There are cultural differences, but most western societies insist that modest dress involves covering the female breast (although the same does not always apply to the male breast).

Female breasts (just can’t bring myself to say “boobs”, sorry) are eulogised in erotic literature, including the Song of Solomon in the aforementioned Bible, and they make brief and teasing, and not so brief, appearances in painting from the Renaissance on.

They also have a profound place in eroticism. Every boy’s adolescence involves a fascination with breasts, which doesn’t seem to diminish with age. It involves sideways glances at the girls at the beach, or standing next to the magazine rack in the service station queue. For girls, adolescence involves trying to stay out of the way of these gazes, without repelling them entirely.

“Boob” has such an ugly sound. While it’s not onomatopoeia I think there ideally should be a certain synaesthesia about a good word, and breasts deserve a good word, not this single syllable that just plops into conversation with no finesse. The only synaesthetic compliment I’d give “boobs” is that, looked at as a series of lines on paper, it is rounded and symmetrical, like breasts.

I’m afraid I can’t divorce the word from the meaning I originally attached to it, I think after reading Pinocchio, of “dunce”, a meaning which goes back to the 1500s. Apparently there is an alternative etymology which goes back to Germany┬áin the 17th century, but used to refer to breasts it was slang – not a proper usage.

Which doesn’t answer the question of “Why abandon ‘breast'”?

This is the part that most interests me. Is it just the word that has shifted, or are we seeing the desexualisation of the mammaries? Displacement of breast by boob seems dismissive of the organ itself, as though it is of no account. Breast is discrete, but boob is out there, almost without the need for a bra (or is that a Bonds?)

Or am I imagining it all?



Posted by Graham at 8:06 am | Comments (11) |
Filed under: Language,Society


  1. I agree with your statement. As a woman the only time I have ever used the word was to describe a garment that was called a Boob Tube.
    we have both male and female chests. Equally, we have male and female breasts without sexual connotation. Let us hope that it is a passing slang term to refer to the mammary glands as boobs.

    Comment by Fay Helwig — October 22, 2013 @ 8:25 am

  2. If Boob is such an in thing, why then have I never heard of Boob Cancer ?

    Comment by Barry White — October 22, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  3. I think it is an era thing.

    Breast is early twentieth century, when breasts were a slightly unmentionable thing, very private, to be kept covered, not a subject for polite conversation. Breast cancer is a medical condition, therefor acceptable in polite conversation.

    Tits, something that “actresses” had, was the accepted slang for use in less polite conversation, so also not suitable for the drawing room.

    Boobs are a late 20th century phenomena, something to be flopped out on the beach, therefor much less personal & private. A word the younger generation could use without the connotation of intruding into private personal space.

    Thinking about it, it does make the younger generation appear a little less crass. In this way could they be showing some respect for their grandmothers anatomy, & her sensibilities, if not their own?

    Comment by Hasbeen — October 22, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  4. Well Hasbeen except that younger women can get breast cancer also.

    Comment by Barry White — October 22, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

  5. Watching one of those survivor docos, I learned that a booby was a large chicken sized sea bird. One of which had fallen from the nest and was destined to become someone’s lunch.
    The presenter cheated, I thought, when he used a flare to start a fire to cook his (sea) goose.
    Later as he munched on a nicely barbequed piece of bird, he casually remarked, that he was eating breast of booby; a nice, if fairly juvenile play on words?
    I can’t recalled the name of the sci-fi thing I was watching some years ago, where one massage parlor mutant, (an extra) apparently had grown four breasts.
    I guess you could say, in that particular case, her boobs had displaced her breasts.
    Another dance hall harlot had an extra one right in the middle of her back.
    She wasn’t much to look at, yet almost everyone was queuing to dance with her. They apparently found her quite titivating?
    Boom boom, Rhrosty

    Comment by Alan Goulding — October 22, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

  6. Breasts are of course featured in many books these days.
    My favorite one is The Big Book of Breasts by Dian Hanson.

    Comment by Sue — October 23, 2013 @ 7:49 am

  7. I had never heard of Dian Hanson. A female pornographer must bring a different perspective to the subject than a male, like say Hugh Hefner.

    Comment by Graham — October 23, 2013 @ 10:31 am

  8. As a baby I was quite fond of breasts.

    Comment by Nora Titzoff — October 23, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  9. The oldest drinking vessel in the world.

    Comment by Alan Goulding — October 28, 2013 @ 10:26 am

  10. I was going to say this isn’t a topic that interested me, but that would be a big boobie.

    Comment by keith kennelly — October 28, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

  11. Does this mean ‘boob of chicken’ will start appearing on restaurant menus now?

    Comment by Jane — November 4, 2013 @ 11:07 am

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