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Nobody else said boo about it

A colleague was startled by a word he saw in this sentence in the pages of The Sun:

But what happens when two of the most important people in your life — your best friend and your boo — don't agree?

Boo? Our desk dictionary says that boo is a slang term for marijuana. And it is. But the Oxford English Dictionary also lists this meaning:

Esp among teenagers: a girlfriend or boyfriend. Also as a form of address.

And, among others, these citations:

1988 Washington Post 22 Dec. Lionel R. Harris is my boyfriend. Lewis shot my Boo and it was not self-defense.

1994 T. WOODS True to Game Qua, please,, don't leave me. Don't leave me now! Boo, talk to me!

1998 Time Out N.Y. 2 July Reenacted phone conversations that find Miss Jones dishing stridently to a girlfriend about her man's imagined infidelities, as well as an actual conversation with her boo.

I’ve omitted a citation from 2004, which contains a couple of additional words that we do not permit in the print edition and which I am reluctant to introduce to the electronic edition.

The OED speculates that boo derives from beau, a point with which the electronic Urban Dictionary agrees:

boo is a term that is derived from the French word "beau" meaning beautiful. In 18th century England it meant an admirer, usually male. It made it's way into Afro-Caribean language perhaps through the French colonisation of some Caribean islands.

Now meaning girl or boyfriend

pet name: your hunny,sweety,baby.

The Urban Dictionary is, of course, an uncertain authority, since people are free to post whatever they think a word means. The entry on the origin of boo might have carried a little more weight if the author had spelled Caribbean correctly. But let that pass; the Urban Dictionary is not anal about orthography.

“Thank God John Carroll is no longer here,” my colleague commented. Mr. Carroll, a former editor, had pronounced views about the language published in his newspaper. It took some persuasion for him to permit the features desk to write about Beavis and Butt-head, and he might well have shrunk at boo as well.

It falls to copy editors at newspapers such as The Sun to operate as gatekeepers about language, particularly to question slang and colloquial expressions. Are they going to be obscure to many of our readers? Are they clear in context, or do they require some explanation? Are they of questionable taste? And whose taste is to determine that?

I’m not necessarily happy about policing the language — a grammarian’s lot is not a happy one. But so long as The Sun aims to be intelligible to a wide rather than a specialized audience, and to maintain a flexible but identifiable range of diction, the duty falls to the copy desk. And we gave boo a pass.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:23 AM | | Comments (7)


Two quibbles:

I will admit blushingly to have been called "my Boo" by my college girlfriend in 1974-75. So it ain't THAT new.

And let us not forget "My sweet Babboo," staple of the Peanets comic strip.

From the SUN: "The Canadian Armed Forces said they are trying to locate nine people believed to be at sea after the Yemen coast guard requested help. SABA reported that the Yemeni government said eight people were missing. It is unclear why there was a discrepancy or if the reports were even talking about the same people."

Being a guy with a musical education, I'm tempted to bust out into "Yemeniiiiii, Yemenaaaaa, my knapsack on my back !!" but I won't.

The query is merely: YEMEN coast guard? YEMENI government?

Is some Scrooge hoarding the "I"s at the Sun?

I'd argue that "boo," especially in the context of the column and the sentence, is not obscure enough that readers wouldn't understand its meaning. ("Boo," meaning my S.O., is also in the title and lyrics of a popular songby Usher and Alicia Keys.) I'm also heartened by C. O'Donnell's comment that "boo" dates back to the mid-70s.

The definition of "boo" as marijuana, however, seems obscure to me, at least in my mid-20s frame of reference.

However, I am a little biased, seeing as a wrote that sentence... :)

My question would be, in terms of slang and colloquialisms, is "What about the audience?" Would references to "hoing" -- an extreme example, i know, but it is an offensive word in slang -- get more leeway in a gardening column than in, say, a front-page hard-news story?

JEM: The marijuana reference points out the hazards of slang. The words can mean different things to people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, class backgrounds or regions. That's why it's tricky.

The point about "hoing" is apt. Context can turn an innocuous word into an offensive one, and the reverse.

Please, keep policing. When the MySpace generation takes over stewardship of the language, no doubt the apocalypse is imminent.

Here's a blood-chilling vision: Scott Adams predicts that "local news will come from hometown bloggers who self-syndicate to all of the newspapers." Imagine the fun you'll have editing then!
The Future of Newspapers<

JEM: To be fair "boo" for "beloved, "main squeeze" or whatever antedates MySpace by a generation or more.

Any when everyone can publish everything, readers who do not want to waste their time will seek out sources of reliable information presented clearly, as they do today.

I'm sure there is no actual infinitive "to self-medicate." Any organization that uses hyphenates, especially as ersatz verbs,shouldn't be too persnickity about 'boo.' And speaking of which, she added parenthetically, there is a recent tendency 'mongst the criminal classes, to refer to 'mahbabymo' when pleading their useless cases in court. Translation: my baby's mother, although certainly not my wife. There is a point when, if you have to use transliteration to make your report or column readable, perhaps its best to choose a different topic.

I hear Boo, and all I can think of is "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I've *never* heard the term "boo" (it made me think first of the child in Monsters Inc., then Boo Radley), and I'd have to say that on first reading I didn't find its meaning to be obvious from its usage here. That said, I'm all for learning new words -- including those from "dialects" (and the likes of "mahbabymo", to be honest) -- and though obviously their usage depends on the audience, the piece, and the publication, I am, as I hear the youngsters say, down with it.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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