Boner? I hardly know her!

“Can you believe they had a character called ‘Beaver Cleaver’ on a wholesome television show?!”

As I self-righteously mocked the naivety of an older generation, it occurred to me that mine also grew up watching a character with a name we’d now consider inappropriate. Andrew Koenig played Richard “Boner” Stabone, best friend to Kirk Cameron’s Mike Seaver, on Growing Pains. Looking at how the show got away with using that nickname offers us a fantastic case study of semantic change.

Boner is attested as early as 1830, when it was used in the UK to refer to body snatchers, but that definition never caught on. Nor did the US definition of boner as a hard-working student—someone who regularly boned up on knowledge.

After the US Civil War, touring minstrel shows became a popular form of entertainment, and a recurring character in these performances was Brudder Bones or Mr. Bones, a slave character played by a white actor in blackface and so named because he carried around bones he used as musical instruments. Mr. Bones was frequently portrayed as a dim-witted buffoon, and “pulling a boner” came to mean “making a mistake,” while “bone-headed” meant “stupid.”

This definition of boner as a blunder or, less frequently, a person responsible for a blunder, persisted even as the word gained a new meaning—the one we’re most familiar with today—that made its way into writing in the 1960s. Interesting that although boner has now become indecorous, its less provocative definition is actually more offensive, in that it was spawned in an era of not-so-casual racism.

A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that in the mainstream media, the shift from “error” boner to “erection” boner started in the early 1990s, missing Boner’s Growing Pains appearances (1985–1989) by just a couple of years, and really took hold around the mid 1990s.

Some sources had fun with the double entendre as they reported on President Bill Clinton’s “boners,” and by the late 1990s, especially when Viagra was introduced, the “erection” sense of boner had pretty much taken over, with the occasional use of “pull a boner” as a fixed expression. Now boner refers not only literally to erections but also figuratively to obsessions, as in “He has a boner for vintage cars.”

The semantic shift we saw in the 1990s happened quickly—so much so that it’s created a generational divide: many people over 60 will say “What a boner!” to refer to errors or idiots, without erections even crossing their minds (any more than usual). It’s also given us a fun game: interpreting old boner quotes with today’s sensibilities:

“This Government has made about every boner possible.” —Spectator, October 7,1960*

“The chiselers, with no independent means of their own, all made the same boner.” —Jack Lait & Lee Mortimer, USA Confidential, 1952**

“In signing on the dotted line with Florence I had made the boner of a lifetime.” —P.G. Wodehouse, Much Obliged, Jeeves, 1971**

“Lett’s boner helped Miami: If not for Leon Lett’s bonehead play of the year, Miami would have lost its last six games.” —Houston Chronicle, January 9, 1994***

__

*From the Oxford English Dictionary
**From Green’s Dictionary of Slang (Thanks to Mister Slang)
***From the Corpus of Contemporary American English

18 thoughts on “Boner? I hardly know her!

  1. Stan Carey February 13, 2015 / 8:44 pm

    I was aware of the semantic shift but I’d never looked at the timing, so this was very interesting. (Also, not being American, I’d never heard of ‘Boner’ Stabone.) The word’s polysemy has generated some notorious (and glorious) retroactive double entendres in Batman comics:

    Liked by 6 people

    • Iva Cheung February 13, 2015 / 8:46 pm

      Haha! These are great!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Alina Cincan February 19, 2015 / 3:47 pm

      Brilliant! :)))

      Like

  2. Bill R February 13, 2015 / 9:32 pm

    As usual, media usage lagged behind the “real world”. As a prepubescent boy in Michigan in the late 50s and early 60s a boner already meant an erection, even if we didn’t know what it was good for.

    Liked by 2 people

    • EricF February 14, 2015 / 4:44 pm

      +1 Same era, same geography, same demographic… I distinctly recall using the term in elementary school in Midland, MI in 1963-4.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ultramediajapan February 13, 2015 / 11:29 pm

    Excellent post. The history of boners in two minutes!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. rossmurray1 February 14, 2015 / 1:16 am

    I would have thought that “bone-headed” came from the notion of “nothing up there but skull.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. woodymott February 14, 2015 / 1:49 am

    Bill R is right; used by all 1950 just made puberty young boys: “can’t stand up,I got a boner, need wait for it to go down.” “Look at that dumb shit, walking around with a boner pushing out his pants; thinks he’s impressing the girls.” If you’re claiming a recent change; talk to us old farts afore ye publish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung February 14, 2015 / 1:53 am

      Fair enough! I’ve amended to hedge a smidge.

      Like

  6. hanmeng February 14, 2015 / 2:06 am

    Then there are “ladyboners”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung February 14, 2015 / 2:09 am

      Ah, of course!

      Like

  7. Naomi February 14, 2015 / 10:18 am

    I always got the impression that the creators of Leave it to Beaver, and most of the audience, were in on the joke about Beaver Cleaver… but the timing was just so that ignorance was – just – plausible. Heh.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. misterslang February 14, 2015 / 5:50 pm

    Iva

    Interesting stuff, especially your link between minstrelsy’s Mr Bones and boneheaded/pulling a boner. But I worry. Neither of the latter are so far recorded as being on stream until the early 20th cent, and my assumption has always been that bonehead suggests the ‘thickness/hardness’ of the idiot’s skull (the imagery is older, e.g. thickhead dates to at least 1796) and that boner, error comes from bonehead. That said, the racist canard is that black skulls are thicker than white ones. In 1983 I.L. Allen in Lang. of Ethnic Conflict notes ‘Stereotypes of Low Intelligence: hard-head [also thick-head, bonehead]’, although I forget whether he is referring specifically to African-Americans. And as you say, the minstrel’s ‘bones’ refer to his instrument rather than his skull.

    Boner, erection obviously reflects its hardness but seems to me to come from bone, the penis, which has been around since the mid-17th century.

    My assumptions, of course, may be quite erroneous. Boners, even.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung February 14, 2015 / 6:03 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Jonathon. I appreciate your perspective—and there’s always a chance that my sources, despite my attempts to fact check, are wrong. The bit about the minstrel shows comes from Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary.

      Like

  9. grahamlarkin February 22, 2015 / 12:47 am

    In late 1970s Ontario my 7th-grade teacher was rechristened Mr. Boner through a slight modification of his surname. Believe me, it ONLY signified an erection. And in case you’re wondering, even by the standards of the day he was indeed kind of a dick.

    Liked by 1 person

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