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TWTS: The cow goes ... boo?

When an English-speaking U.S. or British audience is unhappy, they will often express their unhappiness by yelling “boo.” Should the audience wish to scare whomever they’re watching, they could also yell “boo,” though their intent may be misinterpreted.

Assuming the audience isn’t sadistic, the latter situation seems unlikely. However, it does raise questions like the one our listener Sherry Wells recently asked: “How did ‘boo’ come to mean ‘disapproval’ as well as a word to scare someone?”

First, we want to acknowledge that “boo” has more meanings than what Sherry mentions. It can refer to a significant other, a minor wound, marijuana, etc. Those are topics for another day though.

The exclamation “boo” first shows up as a word used to scare someone in the 1600s. Back then it could also be spelled “boh” or “bo,” as in this example from a poem written in 1628: “When a child cries boh / To fright his nurse.”

As for “boo” spelled as we know it today, the Oxford English Dictionary cites this 1639 example as its earliest known usage: “Thou are not able at any time to say ‘boo’ to a goose.” Variations of this phrase are still used to describe a very timid or nervous person.

The verb “boo” predates all of this. There’s evidence that it was used in the 1500s to refer to the noise cows make. “Moo” was also available at that time, so it must have been a matter of auditory interpretation.

It seems that cows were saying “boo” for a while. Thomas d'Urfey’s 1706 comic opera Wonders in the Sun; or the Kingdom of the Birds contains the line “There I keep my father’s cows. Here a boo, there a boo, everywhere a boo.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is the earliest known version we have of what later becomes “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

At some point someone must have decided that cows say “moo,” period. It’s unclear whether cows had any input on the matter.

To hear how “boo” came to mean disapproval, listen to the audio above. And no booing.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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