October 3, 2013

Case File #013.10.03: BOO

English speakers have used the interjection boo to startle or frighten people since at least the early fifteenth century, but information about the word's origins is as nebulous as the ghosts whose utterances it supposedly mimics. It was once believed that the word developed as a corruption of Boh, the name of a tyrannical Medieval general whose brutality struck terror in the hearts of his enemies and allies alike, but not a shred of evidence exists to support this idea, and it has thus long been disregarded as mere folk etymology. More recently, some etymologists have suggested that boo may have evolved from the Latin boare, which meant “to cry aloud or bellow,” yet even the extant data supporting this theory is tenuous. Now, while the source of the frightening interjection may still be a mystery, there is no doubt about the origins of the word's contemporary noun sense. Meaning “a shout of disapproval or contempt,” the word first appeared circa 1800 as an onomatopoeia suggestive of the lowing of oxen, and the utterance of such a boo was meant to imply that the person or object of derision was no better than a mere farm animal. Surprisingly, though, the related verb sense, “to deride or express disapproval by uttering a prolonged boo,” didn't show up for another eighty years or so. And the informal use of boo in which it means “any sound or word”—as in, for example, You didn't say boo to me about your plans—appeared no earlier than 1890.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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