A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "booby trap"?

October 1, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Why is a boobie trap called a boobie trap? Help me out. What're we supposed to be trapping here?

Not booby as in mammary glands, you boob, but booby as in idiot or stupid.

The word "boob" traces from the Spanish bobo meaning stupid, which in turn comes from the Latin balbus meaning stammering. The ancient Romans considered stammering to be a sign of stupidity. This type of word is called "echoic," kind of onomatopeic, reflecting the repetitive stammer. "Bal-bal-bal-bus" says Clau-clau-claudius.

The OED notes that the word booby to mean dunce appears as early as 1599.

There is a species of bird called the booby, from its apparent stupidity. As early as the 1630s, the celebrated author and traveler Sir Thomas Herbert described this tropical bird that perched on ship railings, and was so stupid, unsuspicious, or dense that it could be easily caught by sailors. Sir Thomas says the bird is "fitly called a Booby."

We note an old British expression, "A booby will never make a hawk," meaning that a bird that allows itself to be so easily duped will never itself become a bird of prey.

Today, it's called the red-footed booby (Sula sula) and there are four other species of Booby (genus: Sula). Lest you think we at the Straight Dope are above boob jokes,SDSTAFF Colibri comments that the brown booby Sula leucogaster does lend itself to one of the standard birder's jokes: "Did you see anything down at the beach?" "Just a pair of brown boobies." To whichSDSTAFF bibliophage ripostes, "When I go chasing birds, I always hope to see some great tits. Maybe I'm just an old coot." Simmer down, boys.)

Once we've got the word booby meaning dunce, there are all kind of nice follow-ups.

Booby-prize is the prize given to the loser (such as the contestant with the lowest score), usually something humorous. Literally, the idiot's prize. The OED cites this usage from 1893.

The boob-tube is a term to refer to television, synonymous with "idiot box."

And a booby-trap is a trap set to catch an unsuspecting (idiot) victim. The first use of booby-trap (1850s) referred to practical jokes--the canonical example is balancing a bucket of water atop a door that's ajar, to fall on the hapless dupe who opens the door. The booby-trap was a trap to catch an unsuspecting sap. By World War I, the word was applied to the more deadly booby-traps of warfare, which is the most common usage today.

And, of course, from booby, we also get "booby hatch." There are several origin stories about this term. The most likely is that the first booby hatches were wooden hoods over a hatch on a sailing ship in the 1800s--a small compartment near the bow of the ship. Deranged sailors (or other miscreants deserving punishment) were confined in this hatch, hence leading to the "booby hatch" as a euphemism for an insane asylum.

It is also possible that the aforementioned dimwitted bird called the booby was caught by sailors and confined in a small hooded coup called a hutch, a word easily corrupted to hatch.

And, finally, a booby hutch was a kind of carriage on sled runners in the 1760s, and a booby hatch may have started as a police wagon used to carry away criminals (some of whom were doubtless mental).

Of course, in our enlightened day, we don't use terms like booby hatch or loony bin or nut house, we use the more refined "mental institution."

The phrase "booby hatch" was greatly popularized by Milt Gross (1895-1953), best known today for the "Nize Baby" stories. One of his Sunday comic strips (from 1929-1934) was called "Count Screwloose of Toolose" and depicted a chronic escapee from an insane asylum (Nuttycrest) who spent the day being horrified by the antics of the "normal" folks, and in the last panel was seen hurrying back to the asylum muttering, "Back to the dear old booby hatch."

And James Thurber was able to work out his 1940 story "The Unicorn in the Garden" so that the moral was "Don't count your boobies before they hatch."

Just to round things off (heh), the word "boobie" to mean breasts does not come from bosom, as one might suppose, but from the Elizabethan "bubbies." Bubbies was corrupted to boobies and hence boob in or just before the 1950s.

The word bubbies probably comes from bub, which first meant malt liquor and then meant any strong drink: "bub and grub" means food and alcoholic beverage. This probably derives from the Latin bibere meaning "to drink." However, bubbies perhaps comes from "bubble," which also meant a dupe or gullible person in the 1660s to 1800s. 

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