When you heard the word “buxom,” what do you think? Take a moment, and be honest with yourself. You might think of Buxom Cosmetics, which inundates the results when I do a Google search, though I never heard of th company until I searched. (They promise plump lips.) Or you might think of Hooters (a search for “buxom Hooters” with quotation marks gives thousands of hits).
Here’s what you probably
didn’t expect unless you’re a medievalist or a word aficionado: Around 1380,
the famous religious reformer John Wyclif described Mary, the mother of Jesus,
as “buxumer to [God’s] bidding þan ony hond-mayde” (“buxom, adj.,” OED); and Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse). Not one, not two, but at least three early
modern poets described air as “buxom” (OED).
How did both the denotations and connotations of this word shift so
dramatically? We can rarely work out all the details of how meanings change, but
dictionaries can help us construct a partial explanation. The word developed
from meanings related to “bow” or “bowing,” as in bowing before God, to meaning
“flexible” in both moral and social ways and then “happy” before “well-endowed”
or “curvy” for women.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to early Middle
English buhsum and variants, which in
turn it derives from Old English bugan/gebugan,
to bow or bend. The Dictionary of Old
English has no adjective like “buxom,” but it defines “būgan”: “1. to bow
or bend,” “2. to turn, change direction,” etc., and “6. to submit, yield,
(freq. ref. to conversion to a faith).” Subdivisions of this definition have
the subject submitting to God, to a king, or even to other gods or the
anti-Christ. The Middle English Dictionary
traces the etymology to the verb “bǒu(w)en
bow, obey, etc.” (emphasis in original), the Middle English descendant of “būgan.”
All three dictionaries find a root in the verb “bow.”
Buxom started life as an adjective for bowing to someone as a god or a king, giving these senses in Middle English: I. Easily bowed or bent.
†a. Obedient; pliant; compliant, tractable (to).
†b. Submissive, humble, meek.
†c. Gracious, indulgent, favourable; obliging, amiable, courteous, affable, kindly.
†d. with infinitive: Easily moved, prone, ready. (OED)
All of these senses are now marked obsolete (hence the dagger). The MED’s definitions vary a little in
wording and order, but they cover the same senses. Quotations in both
dictionaries generally have positive connotations: virtuous obedience to God
dominates, with some people being buxom to judges, the pope, or even an
audience. Yet negative connotations are possible, from the Old English choice
to bow to the anti-Christ to the mid-fifteenth century Gesta Romanorum, “Þe flesh is euer lewid, and buxom to do Evil” (OED; my translation: “the flesh is always
foolish and predisposed to do evil”). Whatever can bend towards good can bend
A second sense related
to the first (and also obsolete now) is the OED’s
“†2. Physically: Flexible, pliant. Yielding to pressure,
unresisting (poetic).” Here we find Spenser, Milton, and Dryden
referring to “buxom air” (with some variations in spelling and capitalization),
air that does not resist. The figures who willl “Wing silently the buxom air”
(Milton II.842) are Sin and Death, suggesting that being buxom can still be a
OED then adds a second category for
its next two definitions, and it says in the etymology for the word, “Branch II
seems to have arisen from sense 1c; the development of sense 3 being
precisely the same as in blithe adj., n.,
and adv., that of 4 as in French joli from ‘blithe’
to ‘comely’.” Blithe had senses both
of kindness and joy from the Old English period on, but by the twentieth
century, the positive senses seem to be less in play in favor of “Heedless,
careless” (OED). The senses of buxom in this branch sound positive except
for that caution: “3. Blithe,
gladsome, bright, lively, gay” and “4.
Full of health, vigour, and good temper; well-favoured, plump and comely,
‘jolly’, comfortable-looking (in person). (Chiefly of women.)” The word shifts
from inward to outward qualities much as the French joli did, but at the same time, blithe
is taking on more negative resonances.
The OED omits the sense of “buxom” that comes first to most
twenty-first century minds. Fortunately, Merriam-Webster
is less delicate than the OED, and it
includes “1: vigorously or healthily plump” and under that “specifically:
full-bosomed.” Yet neither dictionary makes clear how we got from “obedient”
and “yielding” to “full-bosomed.”
Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language helps
to fill in the missing pieces. He writes:
In an old form of marriage used before the reformation, the bride promised to be obedient and buxom in bed and at board; from which expression, not well understood, its present meaning seems to be derived. (emphasis in original)
He then gives “Obedient; obsequious” as his first definition and “Gay;
lively; blithe” as his second, so far retracing what the other dictionaries
give. His third definition, however, is “Wanton; jolly,” and this last sense is
followed by two words he derives from this adjective: buxomly, “Wantonly; amorously”; and buxomness, “Wantonness; amorousness.” A term for obedience becomes
associated with sexuality, and particularly with women’s sexuality; brides, not
grooms, were to be “buxom in bed and at board” and Johnson’s quotation for
sense 3, “Wanton; jolly” is from Dryden, referring to a “buxom bride.”
connotations always possible for buxom
came to the fore after people began to use it specifically for women’s appearance
and their sexuality. Perhaps a preference for voluptuous figures helped narrow
it to “curvy,” but how exactly that happened, or why the sense seems to have
narrowed further to women’s breasts, is still not entirely clear.
The word buxom has been attested for around 800
years. It changed connotations from primarily positive to more negative
(licentious) and arguably back again (curvy and voluptuous generally have
positive resonances). It also changed denotation, from an internal quality of
obedience or flexibility to an external, physical quality. Most recently, it
seems to have narrowed to focus on specific physical attributes of women’s
bodies. The word derives from English roots but may have been affected by
French semantic shifts. It remains in relatively common use today and provides
an excellent example of how the meaning of a single word can transform over
“blithe, adj., n.,
and adv.” OED Online,
Oxford UP, 2019.
“bugan.” Dictionary of Old English: A to I Online, edited by Angus Cameron,
Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey, et al., Dictionary of Old
English Project, 2018.
adj.” OED Online, Oxford
adj.” Middle English Dictionary, ed.
Robert E. Lewis, et al., University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online
edition in Middle English Compendium,
edited by Frances McSparran, et al., University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018.
“buxom adjective.” Merriam-Webster, 2019.
of Middle English Prose and Verse. Online edition in Middle English Compendium, edited by Frances McSparran, et al.,
University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018.
Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language:
in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their
different significations by examples from the best writers . . . vol. 1,
2nd ed, 1755-56, in Eighteenth
Century Collections Online, Gale, 2019.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost, in John Milton, ed. Stephen Orgel and Johnathan Goldberg, Oxford UP, 1991.
Author’s note: this is a first in a series of blog assignments that I am doing together with my graduate History of the English Language class as we work together to write for larger audiences than just ourselves.