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Where did the phrase ‘booby trap’ come from?

The term “booby trap” has been a mystery to those unfamiliar with its etymology for many years. Though the word “booby” is considered to be a crude term for a woman’s chest area, it began as a word serving as an insult for someone that was considered a fool. Thus, the full phrase “booby trap” was coined to describe a type of trap or prank that somebody would have to be a fool to fall victim to.

The word “booby” originates from the Spanish term “bobo,” meaning “one who is easily cheated, stupid, fool,” and other synonyms describing a person as a dunce. “Booby” found its way into the English language during the late 16th century, initially being defined as a stupid person or a slow bird in dedication to the Sula, a clumsy bird that was unable to fly. This along with its awkward feet and wings made the bird easier for sailors to catch and consume.

The full term “booby trap” first makes an appearance in the late 19th century, being used in an 1868 edition of the Chambers Journal. The journal discusses a trap comprised of a solid object being placed on top of a door that has been partially left open, prompting whoever is unfortunate enough to walk in to have the object fall on their head.

Outside of literature, booby traps were being done as pranks by schoolchildren. However, the term was also being used to describe traps used to capture, fatally injure, or disclose the location of opponents during World War I. These war booby traps typically consisted of a variety of mechanisms, including explosives, concealed spikes and sought after items such as bottles of whiskey.

The word “booby” was used to define a person as a fool for many decades up until the 20th century, when the author Henry Miller used the term in the classic novel “Tropic of Cancer” to describe a woman’s breasts. Miller continued to popularize the term as a sexual phrase in his work, truncating it to “boobs” during the mid 20th century. His language used in his works had a historic effect on modern literature, challenging American censorship and freedom concerning novels.

Though “booby” has changed in context, the term “booby trap” is still commonly used to describe traps today. It stays closest to its original meaning when used to describe computer viruses that are deployed when a user triggers it through menial tasks such as opening a program or email link that would usually be harmless but has been injected with a virus.