Monday, July 23, 2007

Because of the Google Traffic, That's Why

[posted by Callimachus]

Because my co-blogger wants it, and in honor of Hillary Clinton in one of the few moments lately I felt genuine sympathy for her, here is an etymological tour of boob-words. I tried to keep it short, but the cup runneth over, so to speak.

Breast is Old English breost (the modern spelling conforms to the Scottish and northern English dialectal pronunciation), from Proto-Germanic *breustam (cf. German brust, Gothic brusts), which is perhaps from a Proto-Indo-European base *bhreus-/*bhrus- "to swell, sprout."

Tit generally is regarded as modern slang, but it is identical with Old English titt, a variant of teat. There is no continuous history of the word, however, and the modern slang plural tits, attested from 1928, seems to be a recent reinvention from teat, used without awareness that it is a throwback to the original form. Titty, however, is on record from 1746 as "a dial. and nursery dim. of teat."

Boobs is attested from 1929 in U.S. slang, probably from the much older term boobies (late 17th century), which is related to 17th century bubby and perhaps ultimately from Latin puppa, which is literally "little girl," hence, in child-talk, "breast" (cf. Old French pope, popel "breast," Italian poppa, German dialectal Bubbi, etc.). Certain women of my acquaintance still refer to their sets casually as "the girls."

Jugs for "woman's breasts" is first recorded in 1920 in Australian slang, almost certainly short for milk jugs. The word jug itself has an obscure origin, first attested in 1538 as jugge. It may be connected to the mid-16th century word jug meaning "a low woman, a maidservant," which is a pet alteration of a common personal name such as Joan or Judith. One can think of some reasons why women's names often became words for liquid-carrying vessels (e.g. demijohn, a partial translation and word-play from French damejeanne, literally "Lady Jane"). All this is speculation, but it may put the origin of jug a little closer to the modern slang use.

Rack for "a woman's breasts" (especially if protuberant) is c.1980 slang almost certainly from the earlier slang sense "set of antlers" (1945).

Knockers for a woman's breasts is recorded from 1941, from knocker in the sense of "door banger" (1598). bazooms "woman's breasts" is a 1955 American English slang alteration of bosoms.

Which brings us to the politer terms. Bosom, like breast is almost unchanged from Old English, where it was written bosm. It comes from a common West Germanic word, perhaps from the same base as breast or perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *bhaghus "arm," in which case the primary notion would be "enclosure formed by the breast and the arms."

As a euphemism for "a woman's breasts" bosom is attested from 1959, but bosomy "big-breasted" is recorded from 1928. An earlier attempt to coin a euphemism for "big-breasted" reached back to ancient Greek for bathukolpian
(1825), from Homer's bathykolpos, literally "deep-bosomed."

Cleavage originally was a technical term in geology (1816). The sense of "cleft between a woman's breasts in low-cut clothing" is first recorded in 1946, when it was defined in a "Time" magazine article [Aug. 5] as the "Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress' bosom into two distinct sections."

It comes from one of the two cleaves in Modern English, which, annoyingly, mean opposite things. This one is from Old English cleofan "to split, separate" (a class II strong verb, past tense cleaf, past participle clofen). The old, strong past tense clave still was alive at the time of the King James Bible; and the past participle cloven survives, though mostly in compounds.

Chest was in Old English as cest, but only with the meaning "box, coffer." It is an early Germanic borrowing from Latin cista, which is in turn from Greek kiste "a box, basket," from a root meaning "woven container." The meaning was extended to "thorax" by 1530 (replacing breast in this sense), on the metaphor of the ribs as a "box" for the organs.

A common Indo-European root for "breast" words, represented in Latin mamma and probably from the child's word for "mother," is not much represented in native English words, though it appears in foreign borrowings such as mammary (17th century, from French) and mammal (19th century, from Linnaeus). It may also have provided the first part of the English city name Manchester, which is first recorded in 1086 as Mameceastre and earlier (4th century) as Mamucio, the original Celtic name. The root of this could be Celtic *mamm "breast," also "breast-like hill" with an Old English ceaster "Roman town" attached to the end.

The Greek word for "woman's breast" was mastos, from the base madan "to be wet, to flow," from Proto-Indo-European *mad- "wet, moist, dripping" (cf. Latin madere "be moist"). It is represented in mastectomy and, surprisingly, in mastodon, from the name given to the extinct beasts in 1806 by Georges Cuvier, meaning literally "breast-tooth," so called from the nipple-like projections on the crowns of the fossil molars.