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 in 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?