Boobs vs. tits: a first look

When you don’t call breasts breasts, are you more likely to call them boobs or tits?

Let’s take it as a given that you are more likely to talk of them at all if you are a male novelist. That’s intuitively obvious (at least to me, and to many others) and has lately been much remarked on. To the annoyance of many women, breasts are sexualized in the male gaze in our society (but by no means in all societies; some find the idea frankly silly). So men, and notably horndog novelists, are apt to talk about them. But…

…here’s the thing. When women talk about how tiresome this is, I have been struck by how often they use the word boobs.

I’m not going to say guys never use the word boobs, because that’s not true, but my experience is that if you see the word boobs, it’s probably written by a woman. Guys talk about tits, hooters, jugs, cleavage, a nice rack, and, of course, breasts, but my impression has long been that boobs is a word that skews strongly to female authors (let’s be scientific and call this hypothesis 1), while tits, on the other hand, is a word male authors are more likely to use (hypothesis 2).

So I decided to check this out with a little corpus research.

I used COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I searched the general fiction books corpus for the three terms: boobs, tits, and breasts. (Forget about hooters, which gets almost exclusively references to the restaurant chain, and jugs, because come on. Cleavage is also equivocal, and let’s just leave out a nice rack, OK?)

I got 144 hits for boobs, 168 hits for tits, and 1387 for breasts. So you can see that boobs and tits are in the same general frequency range of use, which is an order of magnitude less than breasts.

I checked the sources for the citations for boobs and tits to see whether the author for each was male or female. I didn’t do the same lookup for breasts because I am not made of time – that would have taken most of a day’s work, even with the Excel shortcut tricks I know so well – and because breasts can be used in a wider set of circumstances and so the results would not be comparable without careful evaluation of each instance and I am not made of time.

There were a few I wasn’t able to get the author for. Out of 144 hits for boobs, I got author (and sex) for 134. Out of 168 its for tits, I got author (and sex) for 161. Remember, too, that these are all the instances. They aren’t just in the author’s voice, describing characters. They may be in the voice of a character of the opposite sex from the author. And I’m not going to go through and determine the nature for each one right now because see the end of the previous paragraph. This is an initial survey – a first look.

So. May I have a drumroll?

Of 161 instances of tits with identifiable authors, 85 were by male authors and 76 by female authors. This may look like it leans towards the male, but it’s within the 95% confidence interval given the sample size. My hypothesis 2, that men use tits more, is not supported.

Of 134 instances of boobs with identifiable authors, 37 were by male authors and 97 were by female authors. This is a ratio of 2.6 to 1 and is way outside the 95% confidence interval. My hypothesis 1, that women use boobs more, is supported.

But wait! That’s total instances! Some authors have used the term multiple times in the corpus sample (which is the first chapter of a large number of novels). So let’s look at how many authors used each.

Ratio of male to female authors for tits is 60 to 51, which is right at the edge of the 95% CI but does attain statistical significance, thereby supporting hypothesis 2, but just.

Ratio of male to female authors for boobs is 24 to 69, which is, again, way outside the 95% CI, thereby supporting hypothesis 1 yet again.

It’s tempting to compare the tits-to-boobs ratio for each sex (which might at first glance show women using them equally), but it wouldn’t be a very valuable number without some indication of the total word count in the corpus for authors of each sex. Also, without the context of data on other terms, e.g., breasts, the results would be misleading. All my data right now tell me is that I seem to have some basis for my expectation that if I see boobs it’s probably written by a woman.

But this is not a very large sample size, and it’s limited to a certain field. I’m sure it would be very interesting to compare usage on Twitter, but that would require a large, balanced, gender-coded corpus of Tweets. Let me know if you have one. I don’t.

I would also like to point out that this strictly two-valued approach to gender completely misses anyone who does not fall within that binary. That would also be interesting to see, but I don’t know how I could get enough data for that without a large grant, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

And why would boobs be used more by women than by men? I don’t have any real idea. Yet.

17 thoughts on “Boobs vs. tits: a first look

  1. Tom Kenny April 5, 2018 / 5:18 am

    I’m a big fan of the word “tits,” so I use it whenever I can. However, when I am teaching students in class, I will use “boobs” instead.

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  2. Russell Aminzade April 5, 2018 / 12:18 pm

    Do we have any assurance that none of these ‘tits’ reference members of the Paridae family of small birds or one of the towns in Algeria or Iran?
    😉
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tit

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    • sesquiotic April 5, 2018 / 2:07 pm

      We do, in fact! The corpus results include the surrounding text, 10 words on either side. I can scan them all and see that none of them have to do with Paridae. I can also see that the general tone of the “tits” hits is comparatively coarse, sometimes bespeaking smut. I wasn’t able to filter for specific genres, but I suspect that the “tits” instances are much more genre-specific than the “boobs” ones.

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  3. sesquiotic April 5, 2018 / 2:08 pm

    By the way, when I say “I don’t have any real idea,” I do have some guesses. But they’re just guesses.

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  4. Craig April 5, 2018 / 3:04 pm

    As you’ve made clear, you are not made of time; but I think it would be interesting to look for variations in usage for “boobs”, “tits”, and “breasts” when used by the same author. For example, given a reference to breasts involving any of the following modifiers, is one of the nouns more common: “small”, “large”, “perky”, “saggy”, “firm”, “shapeless”, “jiggling” (among various other possibilities)? That is, “perky tits” might be more common than “perky boobs”, while “saggy boobs” might be more common than “saggy tits”. I’m curious to see if the usage patterns of different words for the same object suggest subtle variations in meaning even though the words are technically synonyms.

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    • sesquiotic April 5, 2018 / 7:04 pm

      I can do a collocation search. And in fact I think that would make a nice little follow-up on this, more than just a quick comment reply. I’ll see if I have the time this evening.

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  5. CLDuffy April 5, 2018 / 5:02 pm

    Female weighing in here. To me, “boobs” has always sounded innocent and maybe even a bit goofy. Anatomical even. “Tits” sounds vulgar. Consider the term “tits and ass,” which is all about the objectification of women. So perhaps that’s why women use “tits” less frequently — because it’s associated with a fairly creepy expression. Also, and this might be a stretch, “boobs” has round, comforting letters, whereas “tits” has sharp, pointy letters.

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    • Lane April 6, 2018 / 2:04 pm

      My guess is not the shape of letters but the nature of the sounds and their symbolism. “oo” is a rounded vowel that suggests softness, roundness. And voiced consonants (like b) are more sonorant than voiceless ones (like t). The literature that suggests people associate “boubaa” with a round, cloudy shape and “kiki” with a spiky and angular one seems relevant here.

      Why, if boobs are round and soft no matter who looks at them, would women prefer the bouba-type word? I’m just guessing that it feels more comfortable and less aggressive.

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      • sesquiotic April 6, 2018 / 3:06 pm

        Yes, I’ll be going in that direction. It’s exactly the area I covered in my master’s thesis in linguistics. I just didn’t want to make any pat statements without support. Also, I want to see what I can find of the cultural history.

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  6. יובל פינטר April 5, 2018 / 6:50 pm

    The order-of-magnitude seems a little exaggerated. Chicken breasts? Turkey breasts?

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    • sesquiotic April 5, 2018 / 7:09 pm

      Since I have the context for the “breasts” hits (10 words before and after), I can scan them visually for an impression and I can do string counts on them. My visual impression is that nearly all of them are referring to a woman’s breasts. String counts give me the following hits out of 1387 for the following text strings:

      chicken: 11
      turkey: 0
      her breasts: 17
      my breasts: 1
      her [whole word]: 789
      soft: 49
      nipples: 81
      bodice: 14
      hands: 108
      ripe: 11

      None of this surprises me. I see no reason why novelists wouldn’t use the term “breasts” much more often than “boobs” or “tits,” both of which have specific tones and likely contexts.

      I’m going to do a collocation survey on “boobs,” “tits,” “breasts,” and maybe one or two others. Stay tuned!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. janeishly April 6, 2018 / 1:37 am

    Not for the first time, I realise that despite the breasts adorning the front of my body, I tend to the masculine in my thinking.

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  8. drkvande April 6, 2018 / 3:35 pm

    I realize you may not have time or even enough relevant information to answer such a question, but it would be interesting to see if there are regional or class differences in these usages.

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  9. Craig S May 19, 2018 / 2:25 am

    “Boobs”, in my experience, has a less sexualized connotation than “tits”.

    Boobs is a word you can safely use in polite company, even around the kiddies, when you’re referring to breasts in a non-sexual way — a woman feeding her baby, a woman shopping for clothes and bras that fit properly, etc. — so if you’re writing about breasts in a more sexual context it would just be a jarring word choice, because it doesn’t carry the same sexual charge as some of the other breast euphemisms.

    So if male writers use the word “boobs” less, that’s probably at least in part because they’re less likely to be writing about women’s breasts in the non-sexual ways where it would fit. A man writing about a woman’s breasts is far more likely to be writing a sex scene, and far less likely to be writing about breasts in a non-sexual way.

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