In 1872, the 27-stone figure of the Tichborne Claimant was insisting he was Sir Roger Tichborne Bt, an heir thought lost at sea as a slim young man. To raise funds he undertook a series of public meetings, and at one in the East End, the cry ‘Three groans for the Attorney-General’ was repeated every five minutes.
Dickens describes the classic 19th-century groan in The Pickwick Papers (1836) at the Eatanswill election hustings. When Horatio Fitzkin is proposed, ‘the Fizkinites applauded, and the Slumkeyites groaned, so long, and so loudly, that both he and the seconder might have sung comic songs in lieu of speaking, without anybody’s being a bit the wiser’.
Crowds do still groan, at bad puns, but as ‘an expression of strong disapprobation’ in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, the convention is to boo. The Victorians paired groans and hisses as boos and hisses are today. A depreciatory claque in football crowds is now called the boo-boys. The OED picked up an example from the Sun in 1990: ‘Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson last night backed goal-starved striker Lee Chapman to beat the boo-boys.’ Boo has also taken over territory once occupied by bo. People have said boo to a goose since the days of Charles I, but had already started saying bo to it the previous century. Sometimes it was bo to a battledore, meaning not only the bat for hitting shuttlecocks, but also a hornbook with a handle for children to learn their ABC.
What do you call the game with infants of looking out from behind a cushion? I’d say peep-bo — as used in the game. Some called it bo-peep. In 1528 William Tyndale wrote in a tract against a man who ‘playeth bo-peep with the scripture’. Why Little Bo-Peep was so called, no one, I believe, knows.
The bogey-man Bloody Bones, terrifyingly coupled since the 16th-century with Raw-Head, was invoked in 1672 in another religious controversy by the satirical poet Robert Wild: ‘The Pope’s Raw-head-and-bloody-bones cry Boh Behind the door!’ Today the word shouted to give a fright is more often boo than bo. I can recommend a book by Ronald C. Simons on the startle reflex with the simple title Boo!