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Words: Boob

CHRISTA ACKROYD, wisecracking Express columnist, was having a go the other day at Madonna, who had been photographed at a fashion show wearing a see-through top. "Is that how she intends to attend parents' evenings?" asked Ms Ackroyd of the 41-year-old mother, and the picture was duly reproduced by the Express so that readers could make their own judgements. Then came the pun. "Sorry, Madonna," wrote the indignant Ms Ackroyd, "you boobed."

As puns go, it could have been worse. There are two distinct kinds of boob, and it neatly reminded us of both. The one meaning "fool" is generally supposed to have been borrowed in the 16th century from the Spanish bobo which meant the same thing, though I'm not sure why we bothered to go to Spain for it when we had plenty of very fine words of our own at the time, such as blockhead, ninny, dullard, dolt and dunce. No doubt it was a jibe at the enemy, which had lately been made a fool of by Sir Walter Raleigh. Just as we were later to call any voluptuous woman a femme fatale, because Frenchwomen were thought to be sexy, so the Elizabethans called a fool a bobo or booby, to show what they thought of the Spaniards. It certainly outlasted some of those native words, and was a popular insult over about three centuries, until the Americans shortened it about 100 years ago, and I don't think their shorter version sounds nearly as good, though one must give them credit for booboo. It was in the 1930s that it came to mean a silly mistake as well as the person who made it; the verb, as used by Ms Ackroyd, seems to have arrived soon after.

"The boob-tube" is about either sort. To the Americans it's the goggle- box (addles the brain), but to us it's usually a tight-fitting top. This second sort of boob is claimed by Jonathon Green in his Slang Down the Ages to have come from bibere, the Latin for "to drink", or else to be a variant of pap, an onomatopoeic word representing the noise made by a sucking infant. The more orthodox view is that it came from bubbi, a German dialect word for a teat, sometimes shortened in English from bubby to bub, which caused, or is said to have caused, one of my favourite misprints ("Winds that do shake the darling bubs of May"), and then lengthened again to boob. A perfectly respectable word, I should have thought - as indeed bubby had been in Queen Anne's day - though the 1989 Oxford English Dictionary labels it "slang", as does the 1998 Chambers, but not the New Oxford Dictionary of English, which says "informal".

Alternatives, when examined, turn out to be either too vulgar, or too coy such as bosom, or rather too solemn, like breasts. To me (am I alone here?) breasts evokes the naked objects, whereas boobs may be clothed or unclothed, according to taste. A genteel 18th-century euphemism was neck. At least that was better than embonpoint, as used by Peregrine Worsthorne in court about Andrew Neil's mistress. Mr Neil himself, a Scot, would doubtless have called them boobies.

`Our Dumb Century' has been held over due to lack of space.