Boob: A Breast? Or a Fool?

The English language has more than 1000 words that sexually describe women or their body parts. Here are a few:

Babe, nymph, nymphomaniac, bimbo, fox, dog, beaver, freak, super freak, knockout, melons, tomatoes, whore, ho, dumb blond, shapely, pussy, boobs, hussy, slut, buxom, trim, troll, femme fatale, skank, goddess, jugs, bush, poontang, tart, loose, tramp, butch, bitch, Lolita, Betty, sex kitten, temptress, beast, promiscuous.

Sometimes neutral words take on a sexual meaning when they are applied to women. Call a man a professional and you’ll likely envision doctor or a lawyer. But say, “She’s a professional” and “prostitute” may be the first thing that comes to mind.

An author was asked to rename a book title before publication. “The Position of Women in Society” seemed too suggestive.

“It’s easy” sounds like a simple task. “He’s easy,” might denote an easy grader. But say, “she’s easy,” and you’ll likely hear “sexually promiscuous.”

One-time courtesy titles, or even high titles, can take on sexual meanings. “Madam” is a polite way of addressing a woman. She may be the female head of household. But she may also be the female head of a house of prostitution. Mistress – another term for the female head of house – is now associated with adultery. “Lady” is a polite title. But “lady of the evening” is not. Even the highest status a woman can gain, “Queen” takes on sexual connotations when applied to a gay man or a “drag queen.”

And notice how these words are demeaning as well as sexual (“gay” is beginning to overcome the stigma, but there’s a way to go). We could add drama queen and cootie queen to that mix.

Even the term boob, slang for a woman’s breast, is defined in the dictionary as, “a stupid or foolish person.” Odd that something so valued is also degraded. Is the appeal of boobs similar to the draw of a dumb blonde?

What difference does it all make?

In their work in anthropology, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf learned that words affect how we see. The Hopi Indians had no words to distinguish among the past, present, and future. And they had a difficult time with those concepts. Skiers are more attuned than most to different kinds of snow: powder, packed powder, corn, ice, slush, for example. Or, we so often use male terms to describe humanity – man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship – that when people are asked to think of a person, a man generally comes to mind.

Words dig deep into our unconscious psyches, directing how we see ourselves and others. When we constantly hear sexual and pejorative terms describing women, women come to be sexualized and demeaned in our minds.

The language we learn is neither the fault of the men or the women of our society, in so far as baby girls and baby boys both grow up immersed in these words. What’s important is how we use language once we “get it,” and once we get that it matters.

Georgia Platts

Related posts on BroadBlogs
“Cock” vs “Down There”
Sex: Who Gets Screwed?
Words: Sticks and Stones? Or Shaping How We See Ourselves?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 14, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I found this article very interesting. I knew beforehand that their were more words that sexualized women than men. However, it didn’t even occur to me that the neutral words had a negative, sexual effect when applied to a woman. You’re right though, because I do think of a man being a doctor or something when referred to as a professional; and I think of a prostitute when a woman is called a professional. At first I thought it was my own fault and I should try harder to be a better feminist. But it really is society who is at fault. It saddens me even more that when someone says to think of a person, my mind definitely goes straight to a man. Like the way skiers are more privy to identifying different types of snow; because there are so many words and terms used to sexualize and objectify women, it makes not doing it extremely difficult.

  2. I think it is sad that our society has given women such awful name tags. I know I have been judged based on my having blonde hair, then blowing people out of their mind when I actually had some intelligence behind that blonde hair. I helped raised my two younger brothers and one of the things I thought my brothers was to always respect a women. Never call her a dirty name. Even if you are upset turn and walk away, I told them this with the explanation how would they feel if someone did it to me, or our mother? I told them everyone is someone to someone, and it’s not nice to hurt. I think we should teach our young people how to respect themselves and each other enough not to use such foul words to describe women. I know if someone said some of the words listed to me on the blog, they may face a mean backhand!!

  3. I always thought that calling someone out of their name was disrespectful. Many girls believe “bitch”, “slut”, and other words like that are fighting words. Reclaiming those words is not empowering. Maybe in some way people believe that by using those terms that it is empowering and that they are just words. But they all have meanings. I was horrified when I found out that bitch meant a female dog. Why are they called that? Is it because they get really mad when someone messes with their pups? Like you all mentioned they just show how mysogynistic people really are. Everyone thinks it is okay to use them because we don’t really think about how much people are hurt and disrespected when those terms are used. We’ve gotten so used to using them. We should learn to call people out when using these terms. If they don’t stop using them at least they’ll think about it because they were so surprised someone actually called them out on it. It might make them think before they act and/or speak.

  4. This is one of my favorite posts as I have found myself feeling very frustrated by the limitations and associated, often demeaning, meanings of certain gender related language.

    I have found this especially true in feeling linguistically barred from types of “inclusive” “male-centric” conversation. The other day I was typing a text message to one of my friends that read something like: “I really don’t want to be “that guy” again”, I didn’t put much thought into it until i was typing the “guy” part and realized as a female I might have to settle for “that girl”, but what does that even mean? the “girl” part seemed to ruin it, it didn’t convey the message, nor was it funny as I intended it to be.

    The words that are used to describe females and their body parts are loaded with so much negative and degrading energy that from a young age, I have longed to be/identify as a male in order to escape the judgments/limitations attached to females as a result of the “weight” of such words. These words have helped to develop a strong sense of separation from females in males (which is the only side I’m looking at for now) and instill archaic attitudes such as superiority, moral rectitude, and sexual dominance/entitlement, that cast a dark shadow over females, resulting in their sexualization and degradation.

    With male friends, when conversation begins to encompass such language as you mentioned, even the more neutral language, I find myself shrinking back from the growing “charge” that comes when these words are used. In some cases the male speaker(s) then focus the negativity generated from these words on the now group entity of “girls” or “bitches”, and if they are somehow made aware of my presence I am made “the exception” to these “rules”.

    Even if you feel a bit paralyzed when you encounter sexist attitudes it is really important that you turn them on their head either in your own mind or through actively expressing your objection. It is rare that I experience females standing up to the attitudes mentioned, and I cannot presently recall witnessing ANY male take a stand in such a situation though I know several to have (more) neutral attitudes towards women.

    Yet when looking over these issues, males often become an entity to me and I experience my own attitudes about “those guys” which are equally negative and degrading. Though these attitudes may seem sticky and powerful we should all make an effort to become of aware of them so we can start living with a deeper sense of respect for ourselves and others.

  5. It is interesting to see how a language is associated to a culture, and how the words used have possibly shaped how people look at themselves or others. I believe that many words in different languages had negative meanings and degraded women, especially their body parts. For example, I know English, Cantonese, Mandarin and a native dialect in Fu Jian province called Hokkien. In these languages, I know a few dirty words that sort of despised on women. Maybe these languages are all affected by the patriarchy society; therefore, words referring to women or women’s body parts usually have negative meanings. Also, I am interested in exploring how women were associated with sex in many languages. For example, the words “slut” and “bitch” have sexual implications. I know similar words in Cantonese and Mandarin too. In both English and Mandarin, the word “mistress” no longer serves its original meaning; they refer to concubines or prostitutes. In short, we cannot deny that our cultures generally despise on women because the language we use is doing so. If words really reinforce our sense of self and how we look at others, we should be more careful when using words with negative meanings.

    • Thanks. I’ll have to do a post sometime on “Also, I am interested in exploring how women were associated with sex in many languages. For example, the words “slut” and “bitch” have sexual implications.”

  6. “Even the term boob, slang for a woman’s breast, is defined in the dictionary as, “a stupid or foolish person.” Odd that something so valued is also degraded.” This statement definitely stood out the most when I read this post for the first time. It’s odd how breasts, and the way a women uses them/the way others view them, can be either demeaning or empowering. Back to your main point though, I have to agree that many words used to describe a woman (and her sexuality) generally have a demeaning connotation, even when the word originally meant something else (such as the previously mentioned statement about the word ‘boob). I feel this is due to society and past ideals put into place in order to restrict a woman’s sexuality (and essentially a main part of her power as a woman). I won’t get too deeply into that but I think this post is a perfect example of this situation. I would love to read more about your opinions on terms used to describe women and the stereotypes that are derived from them.

    • Re: I would love to read more about your opinions on terms used to describe women and the stereotypes that are derived from them.

      I’ll definitely have to do a post on that sometime.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. The power of words should never be underestimated. It never occurred to me that the “sexual” words for women largely outnumber those for men. I agree that these words, when associated with sexual meanings devalue women. Unfortunately, they are so common nowadays that people are neglecting or are even unconscious of the demeaning property of the words. But their attitudes are likely to change to a way that is consistent with what they say and what their words mean. The words are ingrained in everyone’s daily life communication. Now, they are not only used by men, but are also used by women which means women are devaluing themselves.

    Words exercise their power in subtle ways. But as everyone is influenced by the words, the effect is huge. People thought it is okay and is cool to use the sexual words to describe women. It soon became a trend that everyone blindly follows as a result of conformity. Little did they think about the meaning and implications behind before they decided to use the words. They didn’t come to think about whether it is appropriate to describe others in sexual ways, even in public. As everybody is doing so, the only things that women ever get associated with are all about sex. Women are being devalued and it gives rise to more serious gender inequality in society as a result. I agree with the author that we should start abandoning those words in our daily communication. We should also spread the message to our friends so that we can help uprooting gender inequality bit by bit, through subtle means.

  8. This post really reminds me that language and words can actually affect our views and opinions toward women and their body parts. I think normally people are more aware of images like advertisement and movies rather than words. Especially in a world that emphasizes visual elements very much, we usually just accept and let the ideas suggested by the mass media assimilate into our minds. It is unfair that women are usually the targets and victims of being judged on. It is also strange that those negative words are usually only used to describe women, seldom are used to describe on men. I wonder why these neutral words take on a sexual meaning when they are applied to women only but not men. I think one reason may be because women used to have a lower status compared to men. Also, women bodies are so widely discussed and sometimes even portrayed as “things” and “objects” by the mass media. They utilize their body parts as selling points to attract people’s attention. The mass media does not only capture their body parts and manipulate them, there are also words, slogans that bring out and enhance the sexual meaning. We, the public after looking at those advertisements, TV programs or movies that contain these sexual elements imposed on women, will not only remember and decipher them, but will also apply to our daily conversations and behaviors. I agree with the sentence “Words affect how we see” as if we use those words that are originally neutral to describe women in a negative and sexual way, we gradually form the habits and the words dig deep into our mind that they carry those negative meanings. Therefore, when we use certain words on women, women will also become sexualized as what we say usually affects what we think. This is not only a psychological problem that affects one’s mind and attitude, but it is also a cultural problem that affects the society. Though it is hard to change, it is so true that we individuals should be responsible for what we say by knowing how to use the language properly.

  9. I totally agree, I’m not raised in America and after coming over I’m frequently referred to all the time and made fun of when I’m talking about some random topic. As you have said, many words that has no sexual innuendo have been made to sound like one. Also it seems like the media, like MTV and TV shows do promote the female bodies as objects rather than a being with emotional feelings or mind of our own. This is a very interesting take, since we were all brought up to respect people in general, but why are commercials or advertisements of females in various compromising positions and looking like objects to be used and thrown? Maybe these are the reasons our language has changed over time!

  10. I found this topic a bit ironic in some ways. I’ve honestly only heard the aforementioned word used in one instance other than talking about a woman’s body, and that was at the Aquarium. I can tell you, I was rather embarrassed when I saw the word Booby printed in large bold text on the pamphlet in the table’s center! It wasn’t until I asked about the bird’s name that I learned about that second connotation of ‘fool’.

    Out of curiosity here, I looked up the word’s history with little luck. ‘Boob’ was used to describe a prison and a fool long before it became attributed to a woman. It was later also used to describe a television via ‘boob tube’ which, perhaps rightfully, was made to imply the stupidity of either the shows or the people watching. However, what caused the change to women mystifies me. The only thing I can think of is an attribution due to a lack of education, since it came into use very briefly in the 1950s. If the word was already meant to imply foolishness, then it makes a bit of sense to push that on to something else you believe is the same. Would it then have fallen to a woman’s breasts because that was her most redeeming feature, thus what defined her person? Hard to say.

    When it comes to defeating such language issues, I fully agree with Josselin. Accepting the word as your own doesn’t fix the problem, it only justifies it. However, respecting yourself and those around you can actually leave a very heavy impact. In some ways, I hadn’t realized how bad the world really was in this sense. I stopped watching television years ago, but even aside from that – the people I’ve always interacted with don’t use derogatory words all too often. At least not in my presence. It wasn’t until somewhat recently that I got to see these same people interact very differently with their own group of friends. The amount of swearing and disrespect was exponentially different, and I asked them later why this was. They couldn’t answer me. Every friend I had admitted that they acted differently around me, that they felt guilty cursing or being cruel, but no one knew why.

    The best suggestion I can give is to treat everyone without blame and with respect. It doesn’t matter if they deserve the respect or not, people do respond when they feel like they’re actually being treated as human beings. Listen well, speak clearly, carry yourself pride. Hate breeds from discrimination and, from that, derogations are made. The main problem with society today is that everyone discriminates against themselves and thus lash out for no reason other than to do so, regardless of gender or race.

  11. I agree with the last two sentences of this article. Its no ones fault that we use this kind of language. “What’s important is how to use it once we get it,” is true because we all learn our first words at home, and if we hear our parents calling each other “stupid”, “bitch”, and all those words that’s what we are going to learn as we grow up. Children might even think is good to call other people like that. Is really bad to let kids use those words with other people, and it makes that person look and sound very low. I have personally had a similar experience with one of my little cousins. He was 6 years old and everytime someone would come to my aunts house he would say “hi bitch” or “thank you whore” and my aunt thought he was really cute and she would laugh. A few months later some family members talked to my aunt and tried to let her know that what she was doing was bad for her kid, so then my aunt started talking to her son and she tried to make him understand that what he was saying was bad, but it was really hard. Now that he is ten years old he is a nice boy, and I notice that first kids learn good and bad language at home, second from TV, and third from the streets.

  12. To be honest, I think the “boob” thing is stretching it a bit, as no one really uses it anymore to describe foolish people.

    What sort of disturbs me is the “word reclamation” trend that seems to be popular in more recent times. Women “reclaiming” the words “slut” and “bitch” as if they could be empowering. To me, this just signals already misogynistic men that “It’s okay to treat these women as such.”

    • Yes, I can also see a downside to word reclamation.

      And while boob is an older term, I find it odd and problematic that so many negative terms have been attached to women and their body parts over time. In fact, the negative imagry still pops into my head from time to time, and I try to use the word breast rather than boob, because it does feel a bit disrespectful to me.

  13. I believe that you bring up a very good point about how many words associated with women are “bad” words. With words like “she’s easy” or “professional” having a bad connotation for a women is already very demeaning however even more so is how easy words come to mind to describe a certain type of woman. If a woman is mean then they’re a bitch, if they’ve “been around” then their a slut. If these women were men than in no way would words like that be used to describe them. Even more to the extreme how some men will use the word “bitch” just to refer to the female gender in general. Its usage in this way is made almost subconscious due to repetition and truly it is a shame.

  14. Josselin Alvarez

    I’ve become more conscious about how other people, particularly guys I hang out with, use their language. And I was horrified to realize just how much degrading of women is done in a tiny conversation. The word “bitch” is one that I’ve been picking up a lot on lately. I get the most ridiculous reactions when I call guys, even girls out on this. It’s like they never realized what it really meant and how disrespectful it really is. They normally just get all bug-eyed and don’t know what to say. Luckily there’s been some guys who apologize, but only because I’m there… though I know they’ll go right back to using it with their friends.

    I remember I called my boyfriend a “jerk” one time and he was beyond offended. I was appalled by his reaction because I really didn’t think he’d take it that seriously being that guys use worse language for girls. Jerk is probably the nicest way of calling a guy an “asshole”. But even then, I think the words that are used for guys, aren’t as degrading. I realized girls are beginning to do it more and more often…. going as far as referring to themselves as “bitches”. It disgusts me because I think it’s hard to respect someone who can’t respect themselves…. this goes for guys calling girls names like this too. If girls make it okay, then it gives guys complete permission to do so.

    • I totally agree with you. Girls that refer themselves as “bitches” also disgusts me. It is so disrespectful to themselves and even to their parents. I don’t know since when it has sort of become a trend that some young females like to refer themselves as “bitches”. Celebrities like Paris Hilton and reality stars the Kardashians call themselves “bitches” on their TV shows publicly, it creates a really bad influence to many young females yet nobody stepped out and criticized anything about it.
      Therefore, I think the only way to change these negativity referring towards women is that women should first respect themselves. If they don’t respect themselves, how could they expect others to respect them?

  15. Lidia Nikolaenko

    “Words dig deep into our unconscious psyches, directing how we see ourselves and others. ” It is true, because we think in a language. Our thoughts are made of words. If the word carries in itself an opinion about something, than we learn the meaning of the word together with the opinion. Children can’t choose what words to learn. They just absorb the language, and through the language they will understand their role in society, and the role of others. It is very interesting, how in modern English, words related to women almost automatically obtain sexual context. I remember, in my country, Russia, words in relation to the women, like chick and such appeared in the language relatively recently, about 1o years ago. I wondered, where did they come from, but now I know . These words came from English, most of the time without even translation into Russian, but in Russian articulation. They sound pretty ridiculous. It is sad, that these words carry disrespect for a woman and sexual objectification of a woman. It seems, the process of the degradation of the woman in the language is contagious. Marx said, that the level of the society is measured by the position of the woman in the society( sorry, don’t take me literally). The language is the reflection of this position.

  16. Darlene Pizzitolo

    I think men use the word boob is a put down to young women with blond hair
    and large breast, even if the young woman is super smart man that like to put
    down women will still use the word boob. So I think boob describes both.

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