Search the newspaper archives and it's only when you get to 2004 that the "moob" heaves forth into the bra of popular culture. The word crops up as early as 1985 but without any reference to droopy chests - "moob", or "boom" spelt backwards, was coined to describe a sagging economy (it never caught on). The second entry, from 1988, appears to be the result of hasty editing - an article from The Guardian reports Soviet plans to land a space probe on the (presumably soft) surface of the "moob".

And then, there they are: moobs - the breasts a man can get. The quality papers are first to recognise the abbreviated conflation of "man" and "boobs" ( see also: "manboobs") before, in 2005, the neologism finds its natural home in the pages of The Sun . "Moobies and Shakers" reads the headline for a story about the then Prime Minister Tony Blair who "showed off a rather unflattering set of man baps as he frolicked on holiday". The article continues with a "tit parade" of top moobs, flapping on the torsos of Michael Winner, Simon Cowell, Danny DeVito, Peter String fellow and, inexplicably, Iggy Pop ( the "male Trinny Woodall").

Today, of course, the moob has dispensed with its "manboob" long form and, in most cases, quotation marks, too. Although the people at the Oxford English Dictionary say they are still "tracking" moobs before embracing them, the word has entered the modern lexicon. Alongside the lesser-spotted "manbags" ( droopy eyelids) and "menopaunches" ( male "muffin tops" - the doughy overspill on over-stuffed trousers), moobs have become figures of fun and saggy symbols of the decline of the British male.

But for the men who have gynaecomastia (from the Greek "gynae" meaning woman and "mastos" meaning breast) moobs are no laughing matter. And increasingly, as pressure on chaps to look buff rivals the pressure on women to look slim, men are taking drastic action. The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps) recently revealed its figures for 2008. They showed a huge increase in the number of "moob jobs" ( reduction rather than augmentation). In 2008, 323 gynaecomastia corrections were carried out by Baaps members, 44 per cent up on 2007, and 15 times as many as in 2003, when just 22 procedures were carried out.

One of those men was Alan Bradley, a mechanic from Nottingham who went under the knife last October. His life has been defined by his chest - first as an overweight man. " By the time I was 40 I weighed 33 and a half stone," says Bradley, who's now 42. " I never felt full. Morrison's trifles were my biggest downfall - I could eat them all day and would get through three litres of Coke every night without fail. Everything was big - my back, my legs, arms, my moobs - I was just a big body with a little head stuck on top."

The effect of binge eating was disastrous for Bradley's body - the heightened risk of diabetes, hypertension and heart attacks required regular check-ups - but the knock to his confidence was more devastating. "If you're in a group of blokes and they're all macho and there's one of you with moobs, who do you think is going to get picked on?" he says. "You laugh and joke with them but deep down, it's mentally wrecking. I have sat at home thinking I wouldn't go out for the rest of my life. I've got young children and they'd ask me if we could go swimming. I'd say yes and then they'd ask if I could come in. I couldn't do it - nobody was going to see my body, no way. I hated everything from the neck down."

Crunch time came two years ago when Bradley, who had never been abroad before, planned a family holiday with his wife. He warned the airline he was a "big lad" but was dismayed to be asked to pay for two seats. "I refused out of principle and the family went without me," he says. "When I saw their photos I thought, right, I'm missing out on everything."

Armed with a pile of women's magazines offering diet tips, an exercise bike he put in front of his TV and a strict regime enforced by his wife, Bradley soon started shedding pounds - 294 pounds to be precise. In just two years, Bradley lost 21 stone, taking him from his gutbusting 33- stone peak down to a svelte 13 stone. "My doctor couldn't believe how much weight I was losing," Bradley says. "People thought I must have had a gastric band done but I hadn't - it was all off my own back."

But as he was losing the weight, Bradley realised getting rid of his moobs was going to be harder than he thought. The fat that had amassed around his chest disappeared, but the skin and some remaining breast tissue would not budge, leaving large folds of flesh. "I was in the same predicament," Bradley says. "I wouldn't show my body to anybody when I was big and I wasn't going to do it now either. I'd dropped down shirt sizes but couldn't wear the smaller one because you could still see the outline of my moobs. They were a constant reminder."

Where do men like Bradley go to get their moobs removed? The National Health Service will pay in some cases - between 2006 and 2008, 350 men had the procedure on the NHS in Scotland alone - but most are forced to go private. Bradley paid £ 8,000 for two operations to remove his moobs as well as skin from his tummy at the Harley Medical Group network of clinics.

Taimur Shoaib has been a consultant plastic surgeon for three years, most recently with the NHS at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and the city's private Nuffield Hospital. He says he's doing an average of one male breast reduction every fortnight - the majority of them privately and usually for about £3,600. How does he explain the increased demand for moob surgery? " It's not because more men have moobs," he explains. " It's because they have become more aware of their body shape. There's also better patient empowerment these days. They're researching their problems and finding people who can help them.

"The vast majority of the men I see are perfectly normal in terms of body shape and size," Shoaib says. "They just have this abnormal excessive chest wall and breast tissue they can't shift. They've gone to the gym to try and burn it off but there's nothing they can do."

Moobs, you see, are caused by more than obesity. Raging hormones in puberty usually result in some breast tissue growth in teenage boys, but this generally subsides as young men ride out the endocrine storm. In other men, the moobs never retreat, or reappear later in life, due to further hormonal imbalance, genetic disorders, the side effects of drugs including those used to treat prostate cancer, or steroid abuse. Some experts have fingered "hormone pollution" as another, growing cause. The presence in waterways of oestrogen, passed naturally by women on the pill, has been shown in some studies to turn male fish into females; the consequences for men as these hormones, which are also used in meat production, pass up the food chain has not been fully studied.

As demand for the surgery rockets, Shoaib and other plastic surgeons are seeing a new kind of client walking through their doors - a scenario now being repeated outside the UK, too. Dr Cap Lesesne is one of the leading plastic surgeons in America, the home of cosmetic correction. Working in a plush office on Park Avenue, Manhattan, Dr Lesesne has nipped and tucked some of the most moneyed figures in the world - his clients include royalty, Hollywood A-listers and captains of industry. He trades in vanity. "But that's not the case with gynaecomastia," Dr Lesesne says." Unlike most patients, who come back after their first procedure - some botox, say - and ask you for this or that, these men come in for their surgery and you never hear from them. They are devastated men who just want to get rid of their breasts and move on."

The procedure itself is one of the simplest on a plastic surgeon's menu. Over to Shoaib ( the squeamish may wish to skip this paragraph): "It's usually a combination of liposuction and incisional surgery performed under local anaesthetic," he says. " First I'll inject a fluid into the tissue of the chest that allows us to pass a small canula of about three millimetres into the area. We suck any fat out through that, starting at the top of the moob and working down. Sometimes that's enough but often you're left with a bit of puffiness behind the nipple. I then make a U-shaped incision where the areola - the dark skin around the nipple - meets the chest skin and remove the tissue. The whole procedure usually takes about 90 minutes."

Although men are increasingly seeking a surgical solution to their moob problem, there are some who are attached to their breasts more than physically. Ian Whitcombe, an IT consultant, only wanted to practise his internet design skills when he decided to make a website in 2004. He had read the "moob" stories in the papers and thought it would be fun to launch as a satirical take on the growing phenomenon. "I thought we'd get a few hits, but before longwe were getting 40,000 a month," says Whitcombe. "There are some weird people out there."

A look around, which Whitcombe bills as "The site that says 'we're fat and we're proud' and then quickly puts its T- shirt back on", is at once enlightening and mildly unsettling. Men with boobs around the world submit photos to the site and visitors select a "Man Boobs of the Month Champion" ( the incumbent at the time of writing was Greg, whose chest, seen below his full beard, resembles twin ciabattas). The "Top 10" page, which sets artfully lit shots alongside more in-your-face mobile-phone pictures, includes a submission from Jayme, a young Australian experimenting with transgenderism. A course of female hormones has given Jayme, who says he is looking for an "understanding" girlfriend, D- cup breasts.

"I have just turned 29 and have been on hormones for almost two years now," Jayme writes in an e- mail. " My doctor is amazed I have developed such nice and feminine breasts; my nipples are soooo sensitive and look great!! I believe they have reached their maximum size on hormones... I hope so anyway, they look and feel amazing."

Whitcombe says he has heard about men so fond of their moobs that they seek augmentation surgery. It comes as no surprise to Dr Lesesne, who has been practising on Park Avenue for more than two decades. "A long time ago I had a guy come in dressed as a woman. He was transgender but wanted me to give him breast implants on his back. He wanted to give his lover something to hold on to while they were having sex." Dr Lesesne says he turned the man down, instead referring him to his rival down the street. "I got a call about an hour later. The surgeon wasn't impressed."

But the majority of men with moobs can't wait to be rid of them. "I was just so happy finally to be having the operation," Bradley recalls. "I went in at about 11am and had no fear. By 2pm I had come round and was up and walking about later that day. I had to wear a corset thing for about six weeks. When it came off, I couldn't believe it.

Me and my wife both looked in the mirror and cried. The old part of me had gone and the new part was coming through. My confidence went through the roof."

Two years after the low that came with being stuck at home as his family jetted off to Spain, Bradley got his chance to leave the country for the first time when he went to Benidorm with his wife late last year. "It's the little things that have changed," he says. " I've walked on the beach in shorts, I've taken up swimming, and I've had sunshine on my body for the first time in 40 years. I can still remember all the 'moob' jokes - I just don't have to hear them any more."