A Trap Play in the Grapefruit League

Rob Kyff on

While working as a busboy in the dining hall during my college days, I became the victim of what would become known as "the ol' milk-in-the-grapefruit trick."

After my roommates had finished their breakfast one morning when I was working, they "cleverly" poured milk into the empty rind of a grapefruit half and covered it with a saucer. So, when I hastily cleared their table, the milk spilled all over.

What my roommates had created was a "booby trap" -- an innocent-looking object or device rigged to collapse or explode when an unsuspecting victim disturbs it. If only all booby traps were as harmless!

But why a "booby trap"? Therein lies a tale, and it's well told in the book "Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries."

When Spanish mariners first explored the Caribbean during the late 1400s and early 1500s, they encountered a seabird that behaved quite oddly. Wrote Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, a Spaniard who visited the Americas several times, "These birds come to the ships and sit on the topsails and the lateen sails, and they are so stupid and so slow to react that they often can be taken by hand, with a loop of rope on the end of a spear or other short pole."

To be fair, this was something of a bad rap, for not only did these birds have limited experience with humans and ships, but they were also quite clever and graceful at stalking and seizing fish. As if in retaliation, when the captured birds were roasted and eaten by the sailors, they yielded very little meat.

Nevertheless, it was the bird's apparent dim-wittedness that most struck the Spaniards, so they dubbed the creature "pajaro bobo," literally "stupid bird." Around 1600, English speakers heard this Spanish term and adopted "bobo" ("stupid") as "booby," a word they applied to both the bird and any unintelligent person.


But it would be another 200 years, during the 1830s, before the term "booby trap" was devised to describe a snare laid for a "booby" like me, the hapless busboy. (About 50 years later, "booby prize" appeared, denoting a joke award for the worst performance in a competition.)

Revenge is a dish best served cold, so after my roommates had returned to our dorm and were taking their showers, I sneaked into the bathroom and turned on the hot water full-force in all three sinks. This led to a sudden deficit of hot water in the showers and sharp yelps of shivering pain and hearty curses from those within.

This wasn't exactly a booby trap, but score one for the pajaro bobos.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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