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File:Palestinian children with slingslots.jpg

Four boys on the West Bank.

A boy is a young male human (usually child or adolescent), as contrasted to its female counterpart, which is called a girl; thus youth consists of 'boys and girls'.

The term "boy" is primarily used to indicate biological sex distinctions, cultural gender role distinctions or both. The latter most commonly applies to adult men, either considered in some way immature or inferior, in a position associated with aspects of boyhood, or even without such boyish connotation as age-indiscriminate synonym. The term can be joined with a variety of other words to form these gender-related labels as compound words.

Ongoing debates about the influences of nature versus nurture in shaping the behavior of girls and boys raises questions about whether the roles played by boys are mainly the result of inborn differences or of socialization. Images of boys in art, literature and popular culture often demonstrate assumptions about gender roles.


Nicaraguan farming boy.


The word "boy" is recorded since 1154. Its etymology is unclear; it is probably related to East Frisian boi, Old Norse bófi, Dutch boef "(criminal) knave, rogue" and German Bube. These apparently all have their origin in baby talk (like the word baby itself) (Buck 1949: 89).


An adult male human is a man, but when age is not a crucial factor, both terms can be interchangeable, e.g., 'boys and their toys' applies equally to adults and young boys, just as 'Are you mice or men?' can also apply to young boys.


Japanese boys wearing fundoshi at a festival.

The age boundary is not clear cut, rather dependent on the context or even on individual circumstances. A young man who has not assumed (or has been denied) the traditional roles of a man might also be called a boy. It may feel uncomfortable to a young male upon being referred to as a "man" before he believes he has assumed these roles, such as having a career, a partner, a household of his own, fatherhood. Conversely, it may feel uncomfortable to a male to be called a "boy" if he believes he has assumed the traditional roles of a "man". In mother's/mama's boy, the word emphatically implies a male (minor or adult in years) who is too immature to be independent.

In some traditions boyhood is held to be exchanged for adult manhood, or at least approach it significantly, by certain -in se independent- acts assuming a role deemed to be typical for a "normal" man (though there are limits) as marriage, fathering offspring or military service. Various cultural and/or religious rites of passage serve, partially or specifically, to mark the transition to manhood.

File:Kids skinny dipping in India.jpg

Boys skinny dipping on a public place in India.

There is often a number of traditional differences in attire between boys and adult men, which may even give rise to a metaphoric term such as broekvent in Dutch (i.e., a boy who has not yet "graduated" from shorts to trousers) and in what is socially accepted as appropriate behaviour, e.g., boys may be publicly seen naked in cultures where men are not.

In English, the words youth, teenager and adolescent may refer to either male or female. No gender-specific term exists for an intermediate stage between a boy and a man, except "young man", although the term puberty, for one who reached sexual reproductivity (or the legally assumed age, e.g. 14 for boys, often set lower for girls) without being a legal adult yet, stems from a Latin word for boys only, itself named after the accompanying male body hair, pubes, on face and genital region.

Many occasions occur when an adult male is commonly referred to as a boy. A person's boyfriend or loverboy may be of any age; this even applies to a 'working' call-boy, toyboy (though usually younger than the client as youth is generally considered attractive). Reflecting the general aesthetic preference for youth, one says pretty boy (e.g. in the nickname of Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, who committed his first bank robbery at age 30) or Adonis (name of a mythological youth) even when a male beauty is clearly of riper age. In terms (used pejoratively or neutrally) for homosexuals such as batty boy (alongside "batty man"; from "bottom") or "bum boy", age is not essential, but the connotation of immaturity can strengthen insulting use.


Fraternity brothers display identical brands

A man's group of male friends etc. engaged in Male bonding are often called "the boys". It is most common to refer to men, irrespective of age or even in an adult age group, as boys in the context of a team (especially all-male), such as old boys for networking of adult men who attended the same school(s) as boys, or as professional colleagues, e.g. "the boys at the office, - police station etc." (often all adults). The members of a student fraternity can be called frat(ernity) boys, technically preferable to the pleonasm frat-bro(ther), and remain so for life as adults, after graduation.

In sports 'the boys' commonly refers to the team mates; e.g., UK football managers quite often refer to their players as "The boy so-and-so" and this usage is by no means restricted to the youngest players, though it is rarely applied to the most senior. In US urban, particularly African American and Latino slang the term boy is used with a possessive as meaning friend (my boy, his boys), presumably as a reduction of homeboy, originally a male from the same area.


Boy scouts at summer camp in the United States.

In some cases, a word using boy is used merely to designate the age of the (male) person, irrespective of the function, as in altar boy, a minor acting as liturgical acolyte, or in Boy Scouts, an organisation specifically for boys. Thus the compound -man can then be replaced by -boy, as in footboy; or boy is simply added, either as a prefix (e.g., in boy-racer) or as a suffix (e.g., in Teddy Boy).

An adult equivalent (with or without -man) is not to be expected when -boy designates an apprentice (for which some languages use a compound with the equivalent of boy, e.g. leerjongen 'learning boy' in Dutch) or lowest rank implying specific on the job training if promotion is to be obtained, as in kitchen-boy. Similarly schoolboy only applies to minors; the modern near-synonym pupil originally designated a minor in Roman law as being under a specific adult's authority, as in loco parentis.

Expressions such as "boys will be boys" (i.e., a male always retains a tendency for boyish games or mischief) allude to stereotypically ascribed characteristics of boys and men; in the term tomboy, a woman's (according to the counterpart-gender stereotype) uncharacteristically bold nature is even described solely by comparing her to a boy.

The use of boy (like kid) in (fantasy or descriptive) nick-names, also for adult men (e.g. Shark Boy for a wrestler with matching costume), may also connote to the informal or naughty image of boyhood.

In such terms as 'city boy' or 'home boy', the age notion is at most anachronistic, as they indicate any male who grew up (or by extension lived a long time) in a certain environment.

Historically, in countries such as the U.S. and South Africa, "boy" was not only a 'neutral' term for domestics but also used as a disparaging racist insult towards non-white males (especially of African descent), recalling their subservient status even after the 20th century legal emancipation (from slavery, evolved to race segregation, viz. Apartheid) and alleged infantility, and many still consider it offensive in that context to this day.

Specific uses and compounds[]

The following subsections treat some specific contexts where the term boy is frequently used, as such or in compound terms, often 'emancipated' from the age notion as such.

They also show that similar semantic broadness applies to many languages, notably Indo-European; to avoid lengthy duplication, cases may simply be linked here.

  • Master was replaced (not for a slave owner or his overseer etc.) by the late 19th century, as a form of address, especially employed by servants, by Mister (etymologically equal) for the master of the household and other adults, but retained for boys till age 13


The term 'our boys' is commonly used for a nation's soldiers, often with sympathy. Given the physical demands of battle, recruits are preferably in their physical prime, but adult professionals remain included in the term as long as they remain in service.

A case where the term is formally used for (adult) men is sideboy, a member of an even-numbered group of seaman posted in two rows at the Quarterdeck when a visiting dignitary boards or leaves a ship.

In the Ottoman empire, the young, mainly Christian military recruits for life (often forcibly enlisted by 'devshirme') were officially called acemi oglanlar ("novice boys").

Thus "-boy" can enter the nickname for a particular nation's soldiers, e.g. the US (infantry) doughboy, or a specific force, e.g. Fly-boy is slang for an airman.

Furthermore, specific terms refer to minors used in the armed forces:

  • drummer boy
  • ship's boy is a minor in naval training; boy seaman refers to specific, low-paid apprentice ranks, notably in the Royal Navy; until the middle of the twentieth century, they were the only Navy staff subject (like their civilian age-peers, at home and in school) to physical punishment, usually spanking, traditionally administered on the bare bottom (as in English public schools; the adults were lashed on the backside above the waist), either formally (ordered in court martial, publicly executed on deck) or, more often but less severely, summary; the same was true of a midshipman, also a minor, but indicated with "-man" rather than "-boy", possibly reflecting their higher status as future naval officers. Sometimes in ex-servicemen's parades, an old man is described as "ship's boy" to say that he served so classed in the Navy as a boy.

However, when a minor in military employ is considered (historically often far less restrictive then nowadays) too young to be a 'normal' warrior (illegal under present UN rules, but without precise enforceable age limits), he's called boy soldier, regardless whether he's used as an armed fighter or only in logistic or similar functions such as bearer.

Domestic, residential and similar 'personal' attendants[]

  • Houseboy, or often "boy" for short, became a common term for domestic staff, notably non-European natives in the Asian and African colonies, adopted as such in other languages, e.g. in Dutch and French (also in the Belgian colonies).
  • Bellboy was originally a ship's bell-ringer, later a hotel page.
  • Busboy is a rank in restaurants etc. below (head) waiter, fitting for trainees but may be held by ripe adults, even under younger (e.g. better qualified) superiors
  • Page, from the Greek παις pais, again in many languages, already in Hellenistic times παίδες βασιλικοί paides basilikoi 'royal (i.e. court) boys'.
  • Cabin boy
  • Cabana boy
  • Hamam oğlanı "bath boy" (also called Tellak) working in a Turkish bath.
  • Hall boy
  • Kitchen boy, belows the cook(s); in a large household there may be specific functions, such as spitboy
  • Linkboy like linkman meant torch- or other light-bearer

Cultural and religious life[]

  • Altar boy (see above)
  • Choir boy designates a boy (always a minor) singer in a choir; here applies a specific physiological, artistically relevant criterion: they remain a musical category of their own (boy soprano, also known as a treble) until their voice 'breaks', during puberty, to join one of the adult male voice registers (countertenor (closest to treble), alto, tenor, baritone, or bass); only the castrato may (not guaranteed) remain a soprano as an adult man; historically the term was designed for all-male (mainly church) choirs, with men with already broken voices (often former choir boys), in modern times it also applies to mixed choirs.

Rural life and professions[]

  • Cowboy originally designated a herdsboy employed as cowherd, but lost the age notion, first retaining the connotation of inferior status, later applying to the whole ranch life culture; by contrast "shepherd's boy" (rather herding sheep or goats, representing less capital) remained restricted to minors.

Commercial and other services[]

Often the term "boy" describes positions of the trainee type, such as stable boy (a junior stable hand).

  • Best boy in a film crew denotes the chief assistant, usually of the gaffer or key grip, next in line to be promoted; an example of a use where the term is traditionally unaltered in crediting female incumbents
  • Office boy and copy boy refer to a young(est) employee (i.e. lacking experience), in training and/or performing menial services such as making photocopies.
  • Even into the early 20th century, the British empire systematically employed boy clerks, including a specific rank of boy copyist, recruited by examination (despite the name, requiring schooling) and reserved for candidates aged 15-18, not retained in that rank after the age of 20.

Certain jobs need so little training or formal qualifications that they can easily be performed as student job, and thus tend to be filled mostly or exclusively by minors, as it would not pay to employ an adult at or above minimum wage. Thus an equivalent word with the compound man (or similar) may be the rarer one, or even inexistent. Examples include delivery boy, errand boy, messenger boy and various specific terms naming the product to deliver, such as paperboy (closest adult counterpart postman), pizza boy (alongside pizzaman), or to serve, such as a potboy (drinks waiter). In other cases the compound mentions a crucial attribute of his task, e.g. ballboy (more recently also girls) in tennis.

In some cases his small, light body makes a boy a better choice, e.g. as jockey where no weight handicap is in force.

  • A nipper originally was a boy send out by an adult (often his own father) as pickpocket (thief who 'snatches' purses), later a boy assistant to various professions such as a carter, still later (recorded since 1859) a boys' age term roughly equal to toddler

Role play[]

In BDSM, the term boy, often in the deliberate misspelling boi, sometimes specified (notably 'domestic' houseboi), refers not to junior age, but to the submissive position in the role play (e.g. father-son, teacher-pupil, owner-slave) at the masters beck and call, also known as bottom, especially if this implies submitting to discipline by the dominant 'top', who may not only command and humiliate the boi at his discretion but even administer punishment (often spanking, making the term bottom most appropriate) at his (dis)pleasure.

Non-function specific analogous terms[]

Boys, in the strict or a wider sense, are often informally referred to by analogous or metaphorical terms. The literal connotations, which may be ironic or downright pejorative, have often been eroded by common use. Some terms are unisex, with or without (at least historical) preponderance of use for boys:-

  • Cub and pup(py) compare boys to the young of predatory animals, the slang tadpole even to that of an amphibian;
  • Buck, another animal young, usually refers to a sexually adventurous male youngster
  • Sprout compares to a plant's young shoots
  • References to the boy's generally lighter physique then a man include stripling 'slender youth' and -rather insulting- slang like half-pint or small-fry
  • More specifically, shaveling (or in slang shaver) refers to boys' lesser hair growth then men's before - and densification around puberty
  • Various terms refer to children's, often especially boys', lack of adult manners (e.g. "snot(ty) nose(d) (kid)") or to often mischievous behavior, e.g. "rascal", also by analogy with animals, e.g. "monkey", "urchin" (as 'prickly' as a hedgehog); "(spoiled) brat" refers to such undiscipline for lack of firm upbringing.

Analogous uses and popular etymology[]

By analogy "boy" can also refer as an anthropomorphic term to a young male (or any male) of another animal, either in general or species-specific; in the last case it may even have a specific term, notably derived from a boy's name, such as "billy goat" for a 'boy' goat, or tomcat (known since 1809, for any male cat; but just Tom, applied to male kittens, is recorded since c.1303)

Again by analogy "boy" can occasionally even refer to a 'male' object.

Some words contain 'boy' in English by mistake (folk etymology), actually referring to a (near) homophone such as French bois = "wood" (e.g. in "low boy", a type of furniture, and in "tallboy", both furniture and a high glass or goblet).

Similar originally youth-related terms[]

  • bachelor evolved in the 14th century from "knight in training" (possibly by the staff to train for swordfight) to "junior member of a guild or university" and by 1386 to "unmarried man"
  • cadet
  • garçon, the French for boy, a form of the archaic gars (meaning (usually young) man), was adopted in various languages (in English reported since 1788) for a (food or drinks) waiter
  • groom (not the etymologically unrelated homophone meaning "husband-to-be") originally meant "young male", possibly related to "gromet" (servant, especially ship's boy), and only in the 1667 was specifically used for a stable man or - boy (even the last not necessarily a youth).
  • infant, originally 'child too young to speak' evolved to infantryman 'foot soldier' (also footman) and, in Iberian language, to the princely style infante (this, like the original meaning, unisex).
  • knave (Old English cnafa or cnapa, cognate with Dutch knaap, German Knabe, and Knappe, "boy"), originally "a male child", "a boy" (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: Clerks Tale, I. 388). Like Latin puer, the word was early used as a name for any boy or lad employed as a servant, and so of male servants in general (Chaucer: Pardoners Tale, 1. 204), and especially a journeyman. The current use of the word "knave" for "a man who is dishonest and crafty, a rogue", was however an early usage, and is found in Layamon (c. 1205). In playing-cards the lowest court card of each suit, the jack, representing a medieval servant, is still often called the knave.
  • The term junior = 'younger', antonym of senior, occurs in titles as 'lower grade', in terms of service years (not age) or even merely hierarchical, on criteria regardless of experience; equivalent is puisne.
  • The term lad', or in the Scottish diminutive form laddie (recorded since 1546): known since c.1300 as ladde "foot soldier," also "young male servant" (attested as a surname from c.1100), possibly from a Scandinavian language (cf. Norwegian -ladd, in compounds for "young man"), perhaps originally a plural of the pp. of lead (v.), thus "one who is led" (by a lord); present meaning "boy, youth, young man" attested from c.1440; in Northern England, and particularly in the county of Lancashire, males of all ages jokingly refer to themselves as being a Lancashire "lad". Lass(ie) is the female counterpart.
  • minor now usually applies unisex, but historically there was often a different age limit (a remnant may be the age of sexual consent) or even a legal system in which women were never fully emancipated in the eyes of the law, and so passed from the dominion of their fathers to that of their husbands.
  • oac, the Old Irish for "youths", later came to mean "soldier", as in Gallóglaigh (gallowglass)
  • Son, literally a parent's male child, has been used for a male 'junior' which could be called a boy, specifically in respect to a senior, especially a 'father figure', as a man often calls a (significantly younger) boy who addresses him as Sir, or a clergyman (still commonly addressed as father) used to address male laymen, especially those in his pastoral care; the diminutive sonny is reserved for young boys
  • The terms squire and esquire, both from Old French esquier (modern French écuyer), itself from Latin scutarius "shield bearer", originally entered English as a boy in attendance to a knight (like page), but were socially promoted and lost their age-connotation.
  • The term swain, from Old Norse sveinn, originally meant young man or servant, even as a Norwegian court title) entered English c.1150 as "young man attendant upon a knight" i.e. squire, or junior rank, as in boatswain and coxswain, but now usually means a boyfriend (since 1585) or a country lad (farm laborer since 1579; especially a young shepherd, cognate with Old English swan 'swineherd').
  • The term vassal stems from an Old Celtic root *wasso- "young man, squire" (e.g. Welsh gwas "youth, servant," Breton goaz "servant, vassal, man," Irish foss "servant").
  • The term valet and its variant "varlet" also derive from "vassal" (above) and apply to male servants, sometimes specifically boys.
  • wag, now meaning "person fond of making jokes," is recorded in English since 1553; it derives from the verb to wag (i.e. to make a swinging movement), perhaps in this context as a shortening of waghalter "gallows bird," a person destined to swing in a noose or halter, soon applied humorously to mischievous children (the same notion remains in the Dutch expression voor galg en rad opgroeien), later to all young men without the naughty connotation, finally to witty persons

See also[]

Sources and references[]

Buck, Carl Darling (1949). A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-07937-6 (1988 reprint).

az:Oğlan az:اوغلان da:Dreng de:Knabe es:Niño fr:Garçon ga:Buachaill id:Laki-laki is:Drengur hu:Fiú mt:Tifel nl:Jongen nds-nl:Jong (geslacht) ko:소년 no:Gutt nn:gut pt:Menino ru:Мальчик scn:Carusu simple:Boy sv:Boy zh-yue:男仔 zh:男孩