Friday, 30 August 2013

BO - Something to Stink About

BO, Body odour, Sweat, Smell, Stink, Reek, Antiperspirant
"You couldn't do this somewhere more private?"
(photo by Full Six)


Abbreviation. Colloquial.

Body odour.

BO is a touchy subject, and one even the OED seems eager to get out of the way, not hanging about to give the word's origin, time of first recorded use or pronunciation. And yes, its pronunciation could be vitally important, spoken as it is in two letters: bee oh. Could you imagine the mortification if an English language-learner finally plucked up the courage to tell a friend about his unique and frankly disturbing emanation, only to stumble on his final approach because of basing his words on what he had read in the OED

"Man, I've been wanting to tell you; you've got bo."

"I've got what? I've got a bow?"

"Yeah man. Bo. In your armpits."

"A bow in my ... ? I don't understand. Could you perhaps mime what you mean?"

Oh the horror. As if dealing with someone else's BO wasn't bad enough without ambiguity being tossed in. And bad body odour, also known as bromhidrosis, is an issue, as can be halitosis (bad breath), bromodosis (smelly feet) and the rather descriptively termed fish odour syndrome, a disorder that causes someone to smell like rotting fish.

If you've ever wondered how someone with particularly bad BO doesn't smell it themselves, it seems that some people are blissfully immune, on a molecular level, to detecting the vapours wafting from their own armpits. Interestingly, it may all be a big fuss over nothing, as some believe that we only dislike a strong bodily odour because we've been culturally taught to dislike it. This could be a potent retort (even if not as potent as the smell itself) for anyone that takes umbrage at being spoken to about their particularly pungent aroma: "Don't try and mould me into society's norms! This is the way God intended me to smell and who am I to defy nature?" 

BO, Body odour, Stink, Sweaty, Reeking, Smelly
As always, vintage adverts can be trusted to deal sensitively with such personal issues

If, however, one does want to deal with the fact that it smells like something crawled inside your armpit and died, there is plenty of advice out there, and it's all pretty intuitive (or you'd expect it to be). NHS Direct suggests regularly washing with soap, regularly changing your clothes (particularly underwear and socks) and regularly washing said clothes. However, there are some medical problems that cause bad body odour, so if it really is a problem that's not attributable to any of the above measures, it's probably time to see your doctor. 

As for what you should do if a friend or colleague stinks, as always the internet offers a wealth of advice. Some of my favourite tips include:
  • Take your friend to the pharmacy and casually pick out a deodorant, commenting on how good it smells and how good it would smell on them.
  • If you train, change or do P.E together, give them a casual blast of your own deodorant, perhaps with an encouraging "Let me help you with that" type comment.
  • Buy them a gift-basket of soaps, deodorants, antiperspirants, flannels, sponges and other toiletries.
  • Send them an anonymous email telling them you're a friend and you don't want to embarrass them but they smell and they have to do something about it. Seriously: it must be dealt with. Now.
  • If a direct approach is necessary, use neutral language that lays the blame elsewhere, perhaps with terms like deodorant failure, antiperspirant breakdown and sub-standard soap syndrome.
  • Remember the ancient proverb: When a friend smells, a true friend tells.
OK, I made the last two up, because a lot of the advice on the internet was (shock horror) so completely and utterly stupid. It's a horrifying situation to be in, but surely the only approach is the direct one; empathetic and discreet, but direct. I'd certainly want someone to tell me if I was humming to high heaven.

And humming brings me finally to the rather unpleasant language of BO (this is a language blog after all). Various unflattering terms are used, including reeking, minging and the Scottish boggin'. If you're feeling pretentious, why not use mephitic or malodorous? My favourite, however, is the beautifully descriptive humming, a word I first encountered when I came to Ireland: the idea that someone smells so badly that the air literally hums around them. It's rather moving in its own special way.

BO, Body odour, Sweat, Smelly, Rank, Mephistic,

Do you have a problem with BO?

Have you ever had to speak to someone (or been spoken to) about bad BO?

How is BO described where you're from?

Do please leave your most fragrant and delicately scented comments below.


  1. Oh dear! I'm thinking of all the gift baskets of soaps, etc. I have received over the years!!
    I'm sure I wasn't cacodorous. I think...I hope.....!!

    You had me smelling my armpits upon reading this article!
    Had to make sure!

    1. But what if you're one of those that's immune to their own smell? How would you know??

  2. This is timely and useful information ed. I am married 8 years this week, so today I'm taking my wife to a rather nice 5-star hotel. We're on our way now, and I'm so glad I took the opportunity to read today's post while she fills up the tank, cleans the windscreen and checks the tire-pressure.

    Her anniversary gift to me was, and you might need to sit down as the now-obvious implications of this seep in, aftershave!!

    I haven't got her a gift yet, but I'm considering a small basket containing nasal-hair clippers, some blonde hair dye, a foot-skin removal egg thingy, and a leaflet on plastic surgery. She doesn't need any of these, quite the contrary, but I think it's a mature way to show her that I was offended by the aftershave.

    Once again, ed, you may have saved my marriage.


    1. Oh how many marriages Lexicolatry has saved. I think it's ended a few too though, but I suppose it all evens out. Happy anniversary C!

  3. (@clueless: hahahahahahahahahahhaha)

    Anti-perspirants don't always work. However, there are people who don't seem to know how the shower works...

    1. Yup. I don't get them. I love my showers almost as much as I love my baths ...

  4. Sub-standard soap syndrome... I might have to use that one when I have my next pungent student... Thus far I have not had the courage to inform the one or two strongly scented students of their condition.

    1. Telling a student? I ... umm ... wow ... my only advice is this: don't listen to *any* of the advice given in the blogpost. Good luck!

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