Does this word make you giggle?
It makes me giggle, even though I still use it on a quasi-regular basis, because, due to habits from my youth, one of my usual terms for what other people call tissues or Kleenices (that’s the plural of Kleenex, of course) is booger rags.
Booger is as close to a bad word as you can get without actually being a bad word. It’s… well, it’s not vulgar, not exactly; it just names something gross. Super gross. In spite of the fact that we all have boogers and deal with them fairly regularly. (I mean, same with shit, but that’s worse.)
For some people, in fact, booger actually is a bad word, or at least intolerably indecorous, which is about the same. Those of us who loved (and even still love) WKRP in Cincinnati may recall its prominence in the show’s opening episode. Andy Travis, the new station manager of a failing music station in Cincinnati, arrives to discover that one of its deejays, Johnny Caravella, used to be a major radio star in LA. Johnny is stuck at this nowhere station playing moldy oldies because he got fired from his headline job for saying “booger” on the air.
On the other hand, booger is not so outré that you can’t play it in Scrabble, even in the current version of the app with its excessively bowdlerized word list. Just a couple of days ago, starting a new game with a friend who is also an editor and linguist, I looked down and saw the letters in my rack to open the game by laying down BOOGERS, for 76 points. (Do not say “Well, you could have played GOOBERS.” First of all, that would have been worth only 74 points because of the location of the double letter score; second, I play Scrabble to have fun, do you mind?)
Sure, booger is a childish word. Giggling at the idea of socially inappropriate bodily excretions is childish. But this word has a certain power to it to make grown adults momentarily childish again (and I don’t trust anyone who just looks down their nose at it) (“down their nose,” heh). This power needs to be used for good effect: like a little cherry bomb in just the right place (not like a booger in just the right place, that’s gross, stop). It signals to your readers that you are not as starchy as all that. And it’s somehow more gleeful than, say, fart.
I’m sure that the sound of it has some effect on how we receive it. There’s something goofy and ugly about those two voiced stops, that “oo” vowel, and that final syllabic retroflex “er.” Goober is a goofier name for a peanut (and sometimes for a booger); boggart and hobgoblin are bug-ugly beasties; bogeyman is menacing but perhaps more prone to going “Boo!” than to cutting you.
And booger may be related to some of those. It was used as a term for a goblin or bogeyman before it meant snot, and it seems to be descended from bogy or bogey (which in fact is also a British equivalent to booger) and boggart or boggard, all of which have some relation to either bog (as in where the evil spirits dwell) or bug (in the sense of ‘evil creature’, and we don’t just mean a mosquito or wasp). The trail is hard to trace for sure, just because words like this one don’t mix in polite company and so don’t show up in print as much. But we do know that its use for that thing in your nose showed up first in print in the US in the late 1800s.
And its first use on television? Well, I’m not sure about first, but its moment of greatest fame was definitely first broadcast on September 18, 1978, in the opening episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, when Andy Travis told Johnny that the station was going to a rock format and gave him free rein – here, watch:
Best TV show ever.