A “booby trap” is an apparently harmless object which may trigger a practical joke but can also be a possibly lethal trap.
“Booby” has been in use since at least the 1600s, when it meant “stupid person, slow bird.” The “slow bird” referred to the large sea birds we call “boobies.” These birds have large wingspans but are clumsy and slow on land making them easy to catch. They are also known for landing aboard ships, thus offering themselves as a meal for the crew.
“Booby” may originally have come from Spanish. The Spanish word “bobo” means stupid, daft, fool, idiot, clown, one who is easily cheated, and similar terms. A “booby prize” literally means “idiot’s prize.”
As a practical joke, a booby trap might be an object placed on top of a door slightly ajar, ready to fall on the next person to pass through. However, by the early 1900s, it could also be an apparently harmless object containing a concealed explosive device designed to kill or injure anyone who touches it. In From Bapaume to Passchendaele, 1918: “The enemy left ‘booby-traps’ to blow a man to bits or blind him for life if he touched a harmless-looking stick or opened the lid of a box.”
Booby traps are designed to be triggered by actions, therefore often present some form of bait to entice the victim. Lethal booby traps are used in warfare, particularly guerrilla warfare, and traps designed to cause injury or pain are also sometimes used by criminals wanting to protect drugs or other illicit property, and by some owners of legal property who wish to protect it from theft.
The activation of a booby trap is intended to be unexpected to its victim. Part of the skill in placing booby traps lies in exploiting natural human behaviors such as habit, where someone will open a door, drawer or cupboard without thinking. Curiosity and acquisitiveness also come into play, thus attractive or interesting objects are frequently used as bait.
The use of booby traps in war demoralizes soldiers and keeps them continually stressed, suspicious and unable to relax. It can also slow down troop movement as soldiers are forced to sweep areas for booby traps. Like anti-personnel mines, they can harm civilians and other unsuspecting noncombatants.
Many computer viruses take the form of booby traps in that they are triggered when an unsuspecting user performs an apparently ordinary action such as opening an email attachment. These are more modern and can be more harmful than two of the best known examples of booby traps used for entertainment: the exploding cigar and the dribble glass.
I’m truly grateful never to have been the victim of an exploding cigar, but I could do without the computer viruses, too.