Boogers, buggers, and other bugbears

“I almost forgot, fellow babies: Boogerrrrrrrr.”

Ready for your close-up, booger? You got what may be your greatest moment at 17:03 in the first episode of WKRP in Cincinnati.

The backstory (see 8:30 in the episode): Johnny Fever lost his job as a star DJ for saying booger on the air. Now he’s at a dead-end station playing dull music for the funeral-home target market. But the station has a new program director who’s changing the format to rock… and Johnny Fever can say booger all he wants.

Booger.

Yes, yes, OK, revolting, but not downright vulgarian. Is it? It’s snot, disgusting, but it’s not so disgusting that you can’t say it. Can you? I mean, if you’re going to pick a bugbear, a verbal bogeyman or goblin, you’re better abjuring the nasal goober and centralizing the vowel to bespeak the backdoor: not booger but bugger.

I knew bugger was a bad word before I had any idea what it referred to. When I was a kid, my brother bugged me all the time, so I called him a bugger. Reasonable enough, no? Not when my parents heard it. They informed me that bugger was unacceptable. So I called him a bugaroo instead. They were fine with that.

That was one of my great early lessons in the idea that offense inheres in the form and the context, not the content. Just like how mucus is OK when liquid and in the nose, but not when hardened and extracted from the nose. It’s not what you’re talking about, it’s what word you use to refer to it, and when and to whom. Welcome to the wonderful world of connotation: the meaning that comes in by the backdoor.

Speaking of which, my parents did not tell me the standard meaning of bugger. It took me a while to find out what that was. Certainly by the time I was reading Spike Milligan’s war memoirs in high school I knew – bugger off showed up frequently as a milder replacement for fuck off, thanks at least in part to the phonological similarities (the labial and velar consonants on either side of the central vowel). It’s kind of ironic that bugger is less rude than fuck, given the history of English attitudes towards anal versus vaginal penetration.

So we have two verbal bogeymen, bugger and booger, that sound very similar and refer to things that many people find disgusting. We can see a phonaesthetic pattern: a bouquet of supposedly disgusting or unnatural things have this pairing of /b/ and /g/ (in either order) with a non-front vowel in between – boggard, bogie, bogle, bug, bugaboo, bugbear, goblin, and for that matter garble, garbage, grumble, gob, bog, and perhaps even goober, although goober is for the most part a harmless word for a peanut, probably derived from nguba, a word for ‘peanut’ in several Niger-Congo languages. But goober is not known to be etymologically related to booger or bugger.

Are booger and bugger related to each other? Etymologies of colloquial words can be real buggers. I mean bugaroos. For booger, it is known that the snot-goober sense showed up in print in the late 1800s, but that a ‘goblin, bogeyman’ sense was known more than a half century sooner. The former sense likely comes from bogey and boggart and other similar words for things that go “Boo!” Is the latter sense related? Well, there’s a use of bogy that means ‘piece of dried snot’ too, but it only shows up in the 1930s, nearly a half century later than booger. Why would a lump of snot get its name from a word for a malignant spectral being? I don’t know. Which is more vile, Beetlejuice or dried nasaljuice? Hmmmm. Picture a goblin and then picture someone licking a booger and you tell me.

The history of bugger is a little more clear-cut. And perhaps more revolting. Vulgarian? How about Bulgarian?

Buggers – people who penetrate other people anally – got the name bugger from French bougre. That word (and English bugger centuries ago) was used first to refer to heretics, specifically people who adhered to the Albigensian (Cathar) heresy: a dualistic belief that there are two Gods, the good God who is the God of the spiritual realm and the bad God who is the God of this world, the creator of physical things, identified with Satan. Humans, in this view, have the genderless spirits of angels trapped in vile physical bodies, doomed to be reincarnated in the vile world of the flesh unless they undertook a purifying ritual.

You may wonder how that has anything to do with anal sex, aside from apparently not endorsing it. Well, the Cathars were much vilified, and various “unnatural” practices were ascribed to them, including sodomy. But why were they called bougres? Because the movement originated in and near Bulgaria. Yes, Bulgar became bougre became bugger.

And where, by the way, does Bulgar (and Bulgaria) come from? It’s less clear, but it may come from a Turkic verb bulğa ‘mix, shake, stir’ and the derived word bulgak ‘revolt, disorder’. Revolting indeed. (Vulgar is not related.)

So there we are, begorrah. Does booger get some of its (weak) taboo strength from resemblance to bugger? Maybe, but maybe not. Is it phonaesthetically related? It has a beguiling assonance, at least (“He said ‘ass-sonance,’ heh heh heh”). But is it etymologically related? Evidence is that it’s snot. I mean it’s not.

One more thing: How do you say booger? Well, if you go with Oxford or American Heritage or the first pronunciation in Merriam-Webster, the oo is as in book. But that’s not the version I recall growing up with, and it’s not the version I heard on WKRP. I know it with the oo in boot.

Now, if you say it the other way, I’m not going to tell you to bugger off, or to stick it up your nose (or in your ass). But I am interested to know who (from where) prefers which pronunciation.

5 thoughts on “Boogers, buggers, and other bugbears

  1. grammargeddonangel March 25, 2015 / 8:02 pm

    I use the dictionary pronunciation. Grew up in N IL (100 miles west of Chicago, in farm country), have lived in SE WI since 1984 (Milwaukee area for 10 years or so, now west of there about 45 miles in tourist country–and 70 miles from Chicago).

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  2. Stan Carey March 25, 2015 / 8:02 pm

    I don’t use the word booger (and seldom hear it in Ireland), but if I were mentioning it I’d use the oo of boot: /ˈbuːɡər/. I know it mostly from American pop culture – especially Calvin & Hobbes, where booger-brain is a recurring insult.

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  3. Russell March 26, 2015 / 1:05 pm

    re: “…Vulgarian? How about Bulgarian?”

    In Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful novel “River of Smoke,” one of the characters, John Slade, editor of the Canton Register, insists on using the word Bulgarian for afficionados of this practice. As one character explains: “[Slade] is a stickler for proper usage and has a great detestation of corrupted words. He particularly dislikes the word “bugger,” which is so much in use among the vulgar masses. He believes it to be a corruption of the word “Bulgar” or “Bulgarian” and insists on using those instead”
    Another character is puzzled by this comment beause he had always assumed that ‘bugger’ was the English word for the Hindustani bukra or ‘goat,” and makes a remark implying that there was some goat-fucking going on.
    Slade responds “It would not surprise me at all…it is common knowledge that a congenital Bulgar wil Bulgarize anything that takes his fancy.”

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  4. Stan Carey March 26, 2015 / 1:25 pm

    Another phonetically pertinent word is booglarize, as in Captain Beefheart. It’s like a blend of boogie, bugger, and burglarize, but I can’t rule out boogers (or anything else for that matter).

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  5. John Cowan March 28, 2015 / 2:03 am

    I was born just outside the New York City isogloss bundle half a century ago, and use the FOOT vowel in booger. I think of it as a childish word, though; I would tell my grandson not to eat his boogers (sorry if you’re reading this some years from now, Dorian), but I wouldn’t address the word to another adult; I’d say snot or mucus.

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