Word Nerd: Boo

posted in: Word Nerd 1

Blame it on Halloween last week: I got “boo” on the brain. Not the go-to ghost word “Boo!” but the slang term for a quasi-girlfriend/boyfriend, as in “I love my boo” or “It’s just me and my boo. I think boo is the best thing to happen to the English language since chortle.**

Doing research on the Internet is great and all, but from time to time it reveals its limitations. To truly get to the bottom of the etymology of boo, I would need to speak to a linguistics professor or a cultural anthropologist — the web didn’t help much. I found the following possibilities for the existence of boo:

– it’s from the French beau (pronounced “bo”) meaning “boyfriend or male admirer,” which found its way into Afro-Caribbean language through French colonization
– it’s a Southern-bred, derivative term of endearment, lineage going something like this:
poppet –> poopsie –> boopsie –> boo
– it’s just short for “booty”

Who can say? Well, Yahoo question boards can try (boy do they) but I’m not sure about any of these answers and that last one is straight up dubious. I feel confident that boo is a word born in black culture, though. The first time I ever heard it used was in that song “Dilemma,” by Nelly and former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland. The chorus went: No matter what I do/All I think about is you/Even when I’m with my boo/You know I’m crazy over you. Tsk-tsk, children. But until I meet a cultural anthropologist at a cocktail party whose studies include American Ebonics, it could be a long time before I know the true origins. I can still love the word, though, and I sure do.

I love boo because it names a real thing and it’s phonetically perfect for what that thing is. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I have a boo. You and I are having lunch and you ask me what I did over the weekend. I say, “It was me and my boo, just hanging out.” You could infer that my boo was male, because I am straight. You would know that this fellow is involved with me romantically, but you also know I don’t have a boyfriend. So is this person just a random, um, date? (We’re speaking hypothetically, remember.) No, boo implies a tenderness and a familiarity that elevates the subject into something more special than a frivolous fling. I mean, I wanted to hang out with him all weekend, so he must be worth hanging out with.

So I like the word because there do exist these kinds of relationships in the world: something not official, but not pointless. Something important, but not call-your-mother about it. My boo, my boo, my boo.

And then there’s the darlingness of it, the baby-like sound that the word is. It’s close to “goo,” as in “goo-goo, ga-ga” and close to “baby” and it’s also slang, which means you feel pretty street when you say it. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t respond positively if their partner, spouse, lover, etc., affectionately put their arm around them, pulled them close, and said, “Hey, boo.”

Try it. Don’t try it on someone you don’t have genuinely tender, romantic feelings toward, though, because it would be way too familiar. Kinda like calling your 60-year-old Spanish teacher in high school “senorita,” it just makes everyone a little antsy. And to all the boos who had good weekends together, hats off to you.

(But put your pants back on.)

** The word “chortle” did not exist in the English language before Lewis Carroll wrote Jabberwocky in 1871. A hybrid of “chuckle” and “snort,” it is but one of almost two dozen entirely new words introduced in that legendary poem. Now that’s a writer who can write. Check it out.