Buxom: Healthily plump and ample of figure; full-bosomed.
From an AP story dated May 25, 2011, and headlined “Lawyer Objects to Buxom Woman at Trial”:
A Chicago lawyer says his opponent in a small claims case is using an unfair tactic by sitting a buxom woman next to him at counsel’s table.
Attorney Thomas Gooch says the woman’s sole purpose “is to draw the attention of the jury away from the relevant proceedings” — a dispute over a used car. He asks Cook County Circuit Judge Anita Rivkin-Carothers to order the woman to sit in the gallery with other spectators.
The legal blog Lowering the Bar points out that buxom here is a family-friendly-ish euphemism for “large-breasted.” The connection is clarified a couple of paragraphs down in the AP story, where Mr. Gooch is quoted as saying, “Personally, I like large breasts.”
Fruit-crate label (c. 1940s) from Etsy.
Courtroom etiquette aside, what about buxom? Today, the word is used only in reference to women, and specifically to their chestal areas. You might deduce, therefore, that buxom was originally something like buck-some (was buck an archaic term meaning “breast,” perhaps?) or even bust-some.
Well, it was once spelled bucksome. As for the rest, guess again.
Buxom came to us from a very old English word: the OED’s first citations are from 1175. Back then, the word was spelled buhsum or ibucsum; in later centuries it acquired about 30 alternate spellings, including bucksome (in the 16th through 18th centuries). Buhsom meant “easily bowed or bent,” or “obedient” or “tractable”; the buh- part meant “bow.”
A century or two later, the word acquired a few new meanings: “gracious, amiable, courteous” (“Meke and buxom looke thou be, And with hir dwell”—Townley Plays, 1460); “easily moved; ready” (“Many a beggere for benes buxome was to swynke*” – Piers Plowman, 1377); or “pliant, unresisting” (“Wing silently the buxom Air” – Paradise Lost, 1667). By Milton’s era buxom/buxsome was also being used to mean “blithe” or “lively”: In Henry V (1660) Shakespeare writes of “A souldier, one of buxsome valour.”
And seventeenth-century English-speakers had yet another meaning of buxom/buxsome/bucksom to choose from: “full of health, vigor, and good temper” or even something close to today’s meaning: “comfortable-looking (chiefly of women).” “My followers are smooth, plump, and bucksom,” wrote a translator of Erasmus in 1683. “She was a buxom dame, about thirty,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in 1823.
In our own era, buxom has gelled, or ossified, into a single definition. See, for example, a Reuters headline on the obituary for Jane Russell, who died earlier this year:
Buxom actress Jane Russell dead at 89
(Russell looks surprisingly un-buxom in Photo #1; she’s buxomer in the rest of the slide show.)
One contemporary synonym for buxom is busty, with which it shares an initial sound but not an etymology. Busty comes from the artistic term bust, which came into English around 1690 from Italian busto, “a sculpture of the upper body.” (Busto comes from Latin bustum, “a funeral monument.”) Bust began meaning bosom around 1819. And no, bosom isn’t related either: it’s an Old English word that originally meant “a ship’s hold” or “the breast of a human being”—male or female. The first citation of bosom with the narrowed meaning of “a woman’s breasts” is from 1959.
See also: Chesty.
* To swynke = to labor.