A Brief History of ‘Boobies’

A court case about whether wearing "I ♥ boobies!" bracelets is lewd and disruptive in school shines light on an old word

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AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Brianna Hawk, 15, left, and Kayla Martinez, 14, display their bracelets for photographers outside the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. The two teens took their fight over a school ban of their "I (heart) Boobies!" bracelets to a U.S. appeals court and won. The Easton Area School District believes the bracelets have a sexual undertone that invites disruption in the classroom. But Hawk and Martinez say they merely hoped to promote breast cancer awareness at their middle school.

Boobies have been around for about 150 years. Female breasts, of course, have been around much longer than that. But it’s this slang term for a woman’s bosom that is at the heart of a case that may be heading for the Supreme Court.

In 2010, two middle school students in Easton, Pa., defied their school’s ban on bracelets—meant to promote awareness of breast cancer—that said “I ♥ boobies!” After three years of legal battles over lewdness and free speech rights, the school district voted this week to appeal their so-far-losing case to the highest court in the land. And so it happens that Supreme Court Justices may find themselves focused on a word that has roots predating America.

According to Jonathon Green, a lexicographer who has published the most comprehensive dictionary of English slang to date, there are at least 212 synonyms for the female breast. Chugs. Wallopies. Grapefruits. Zoomers. Zogs. Cajooblies. All can be found in the pages of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. As far back as the 1500s, breasts were called paps. In the 1600s, there came other names, like applesglobes and lily white balls. Then, around 1680, there arose a bit of slang that would outshine most all the rest in its various forms: bubby.

Bubby, Green says, may come from the Latin word bibere, meaning to drink. Or it may be onomatopoeic, echoing the sound of an infant breast-feeding. By the 1800s, that word had morphed into booby, which became boob. Since the rise of feminism in the 1970s, that word “seems to be the term of choice for many women,” Green says in an email, partly because it has a softer sound than some of the alternatives.

The question of whether boobies is lewd and disruptive in the context of the bracelets—as the Pennsylvania school officials and their supporters claim it is—remains a matter for the courts to decide. In support of the school, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association wrote a brief arguing that while “one meaning [of “I ♥ boobies!”] is innocuous and simply promotes breast cancer awareness … [a]nother reasonable meaning has a sexual interpretation” that is inappropriate for middle school students and could contribute to a hostile environment. “The fact that this kind of language may hold little shock value outside of school does not mean that educators can simply permit such a manner of expression,” they add.

Back when bubbies was first being used, the slang terms that were considered offensive and disruptive were largely blasphemous, not sexual. Author Melissa Mohr, who wrote a history of swear words, says that this is because religion was taken very seriously in the Middle Ages, but people didn’t have much privacy. People shared beds and bathrooms, and obscene words didn’t register on the horror scale because “people had a much less advanced sense of shame.” As the Age of Enlightenment set in and “religiosity faded, at least in the UK,” Green says, new taboos emerged, like terms referring to sex and parts of the body.

In their brief, the board association draws comparisons to T-shirts reading “I ♥ Va Jay Jays” that are meant to promote awareness of HPV. Green points out that for centuries, words referring to genitals have been considered much more frightening to conservative types. They’re also much more abundant; his count is 1,200 synonyms for vagina—a word that has caused plenty of its own controversy, among adults no less.

“It is hard,” Green writes, “to assess ‘lewdness’, which like so much else lies in the beholder’s eye.”