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In the past, "breast" used to be applicable to both male and female chests, but is generally only gender neutral nowadays when used in certain contexts, such as "breast meat" or "breastplate". Why and when did this change of meaning occur?

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"breast" used to be applicable to both male and female chests... Do you have any evidence to support that assertion? I'm not saying this Ngram disproves it, but it does make me wonder if this question ought to be better substantiated. –  J.R. Jul 21 '12 at 10:54
    
What really makes one think 'did this change of meaning occur'? –  Kris Jul 21 '12 at 10:55
    
    
@J.R. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/breast meaning 2. –  Andrew Grimm Jul 21 '12 at 11:02
    
The usage of breast in the ballad seems to correspond to meaning #4 in Wiktionary. Nevertheless, I don't see how these references demonstrate a shift in usage, or what this has to do with turkey meat or armor. –  J.R. Jul 21 '12 at 13:11
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3 Answers

In Old English the word bréost was considered a neuter gender word. Before that it was considered a dual and carried with it an implied feminine. You will see it spelled "brest" sometimes in old texts and that spelling carries the dual. Since the late 18th century or so, however, "breast" can be either neuter or feminine depending on context whereas "breasts" carries only the feminine.

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It makes negative sense to claim that breast is neuter or feminine in Modern English, because the grammatical category of a noun in Anglo-Saxon has nothing to do with its descendant in Modern English, where such categories no longer exist. –  tchrist Jul 21 '12 at 16:12
    
@tchrist - In the OP: "Why and when did this change of meaning occur?" –  Zac Brown Jul 21 '12 at 16:36
    
You’re confusing grammatical category with sex affiliation. Consider French ma tête vs mon frère. Notice how the determiner shifts based on the grammatical category of the noun. This happened in Anglo-Saxon, where nouns had grammatical gender. It does not happen today, no matter what the word is, because nouns no longer have grammatical gender in English. Therefore it is not reasonable to talk about the “gender” of a modern noun compared with its historical ancestor. It makes no sense at all, and confuses people, too. “Breast” is neither feminine nor neuter in today’s English. –  tchrist Jul 21 '12 at 16:53
    
The OP asks about the switch of the word breast being having a gender (grammatical gender) to being neutral (neuter gender). So while you are correct that ME doesn't contain gender (actually, some do contest that), the OP is asking about the switch as it pertains specifically to the word breast. So, a "chicken breast filet" doesn't mean then breast of a female chicken, it means a breast of whatever chicken was unfortunate enough to have been chosen that time around. –  Zac Brown Jul 21 '12 at 17:03
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@Aaron, this is how I parse it: Breast "used to be" gender-neutral (i.e., it was applicable to both male & female), but, nowadays, it's only neutral in certain contexts (like chicken & armor & birds), meaning it's less neutral now than it used to be. So, essentially, O.P. is asking, "When did we start associating the word breast with female; i.e., when did we start thinking of it in a less neutrally?" Either way, when pressed for evidence that some shift has occurred, he merely quoted a 1931 Irish hymn, which is a pretty vague clarification and shoddy defense of his premise. –  J.R. Jul 22 '12 at 0:24
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Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

. . . [and]

last Night

The silent Tomb receiv'd the good Old King;

He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg'd

Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.

-William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697

In neither case is Mr. Congreve just alluding to the feminine.

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+1 for bringing some poetry :-) –  Zac Brown Jul 21 '12 at 17:09
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Breast can sometimes refer to the entire chest, not to individual mammary glands. Think of double-breasted suits, which are traditionally worn by men, not by women.

You also occasionally see it used this way specifically referring to the place that air comes from. Consider the red-breasted nuthatch, the rose-breasted grosbeak, or little robin redbreast himself.

Breast (in the singular, not the plural as with mammaries) is also used figuratively to mean the seat of emotions. Used in this way, it cannot be exchanged with “chest”. Consider the phrase “his breast swelled/swollen with pride”. You couldn’t say that “his *chest swelled with pride” instead, because that would be a purely physical thing, and the swelling is here figurative.

As for even purely physical breasts being unique to women, that is patently untrue. Otherwise how could there be any such thing as breast cancer in men? Since there sadly enough indeed is such a thing, it is clear that men must necessarliy also have breasts, even if these do not (well, seldom) lactate.

In summary, your question has a false premise in it, for men have breasts, too. Just ask any physician.

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I don't think the question has a false premise because it asks about general usage. I would guess that most native English speakers assume the feminine when saying or discussing breasts. Meat cutters, zoologists, tailors, physicians, or others who commonly come into contact with male breasts may not, but combined they don't make up the majority or sway the average. "His breasts" may hurt, but it's unlikely that you will see it written that way. I figure it's because we have a male dominated society in which breasts are seen as feminine, and regarding that I point to my previous post. –  Zac Brown Jul 21 '12 at 16:42
    
@AaronLang You prefer “his tits hurt” to “his breasts hurt” then? Interesting. –  tchrist Jul 21 '12 at 16:56
    
Actually I was referring to the common usage of "chest" by modern native English speakers. If average man X goes to the doctor with a pain on the left side of his chest, he will say that he has a pain on the left side of his chest, not in his left breast. Similarly, depending on the location of the pain (think in 3d here), a woman would have to specify if the pain is in her chest (more general) or in her breast (more specific spatially). –  Zac Brown Jul 21 '12 at 17:08
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@Aaron: I think the question does have a false premise, even after reading your points. Are women more likely than men to complain about breast pain? Of course. But is that a modern distinction somehow? Call me dense, but I still don't see any evidence that "in the past, 'breast' used to be applicable to both male and female chests, but is generally only gender neutral nowadays when used in certain contexts." I need more facts about this perceived (or imaginary) shift of meaning, before I could speculate about when or why it happened. Maybe it all started with those pink ribbons? –  J.R. Jul 21 '12 at 18:16
    
I think the question may be creating confusion with its wording. Both a male and female may have breast cancer where as "chicken breast" is a neuter term. Also, typically, men will complain of chest pain where as, again, it's more likely that a woman will complain of breast pain. The question deals specifically with the neuter. Or, in other words, when did the neuter of breast enter into common usage to guide the reader away from the term "breasts" meaning female breasts. –  Zac Brown Jul 21 '12 at 18:46
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