Boy Oh Boy

By Maeve Maddox

This sentence in a newspaper feature about Civil War hero David O. Dodd, got me thinking about the word boy:

Dodd is lionized in these parts as the “Boy Martyr of the Confederacy” — although “Teen Martyr” would be a more accurate sobriquet for a young man who was only a year short of being old enough to be drafted into the Rebel army.”

Dodd was 17 when Union troops occupying Little Rock hanged him in 1864. The word boy to refer to a 17-year-old seems a valid choice to me.

Boy has been in the language since 1300. More than one etymology has been argued, but its origin is uncertain. Its earliest use in English was with the meaning “male servant” or “slave.”

Note: Before boy came to mean “a male child,” the word girl was used to refer to young people of either sex. A speaker who wanted to refer to a “male ‘girl’” used the expression “knave girl.” Both words, boy and girl, had taken on their present meanings by the 1400s.

In the British colonies and in the American South, boy was used to refer to non-white servants, regardless of age. Today, of course, such usage is considered to be extremely offensive. In France, until fairly recently, the usual term for summoning a waiter was garçon, “boy,” but nowadays, serveur is the masculine term for “waiter.”

Apart from its general meaning of “a young male, (usually below the age of puberty, or still in school),” boy occurs in a great variety of idioms that refer not just to male human beings of any age, but to dogs as well.

Oh boy! Depending upon context and intonation, this exclamation can denote delight or dismay. For example, “Oh boy! I’ve won the lottery!” or, “Oh boy, you’re in trouble now.

That’s my boy! A parent, proud of a son, might say this in approval of some accomplishment.

Old boys’ club/old boys’ network: network of social and professional connections that perpetuate favoritism in government and other sectors. The expression originated with the British “public school” system. (In the U.K., “public schools” are elite private schools attended by the children of the wealthy.) Male graduates of exclusive schools were called “old boys.” Because of connections forged in school, these “old boys” went on to occupy highly placed jobs in government and commerce, helped by a previous generation of “old boys” who made up a segment of insiders. By extension, the expression can be used to refer to any kind of favoritism that makes advancement difficult for outsiders.

There’s a good boy! An expression pet owners use with male dogs. Sometimes it is phrased as a question: “Who’s a good boy?”

Down, boy! This expression is used to address a dog that is jumping on someone. By extension, it is used humorously to a man who reacts with interest when introduced to a good-looking woman.

Our boys in uniform: Men serving in the military, regardless of age. Now that women are more visible in the military, the expression is not as common as it once was.

Boys’ night out: A weekly social outing for friends, limited to men.

Boys will be boys: An expression of resigned acceptance uttered when men do something despicable that is considered to be characteristic of age or sex.

Send a boy to do a man’s job: to ask someone young, ill-equipped, or inexperienced to do difficult or complicated work. Usually in negative contexts, as “Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”

boy next door: Unlike most “boy” expressions, this one has a corresponding one for women: girl next door. The expressions denote a stereotypical personification of a young, unspoiled, admirable character whom one might safely fall in love with.

boy king: Tutankhamen is often referred to as “the boy king.” Boy can be used in a descriptive sense with any noun: “boy wonder,” “boy genius.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


7 Responses to “Boy Oh Boy”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, here is a meaning of “Oh, Boy!” that you didn’t memtion.
    It came from people who wanted to follow the Ten Commandments carefully, including “Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
    Hence the expression “Oh, Boy!” arose as a substitute for the forbidden expletive “Jesus Christ!”
    Yes, there are stories in the four Gospels of the New Testament of Jesus’s being born as a baby boy.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I am disturbed by the all-too-common practice, especially in the sports reports on TV, of referring to male college students as “boys”.
    It used to be, and it still is, quite O.K. to refer to “high school boys”, but once these students entered college, they became college MEN.

    I can tell you than when I entered college in 1973, I was definitely a college man, and if anyone had called me a “boy”, I would have been insulted. The same applies to females. Those students in my school were college women, and not “girls”, though co-eds was also used.
    The situation is different regarding “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”.
    I can remember when I was in my mid-forties and I was dating a woman the same age who had two grown daughters. The occasion arose that one of the daughters needed to introduce me to someone, and she said, “This is my mothers new boyfriend.” That made perfect sense, and I referred to the mother as “my girlfriend”.

    An intersting thing was that the younger daughter (the one who intoduced me) was kind and acceptive to me, and we liked each other. On the other hand, the older daughter rarely even spoke to me. She must have had very different feelings about her parents’ divorce, and the younger one was more acceptive of me.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    When it came to college students, it became a lot more common to refer to them as “Mr.”, “Miss”, or “Ms.”
    I can remember many of my professors referring to me as “Mr. Wood”, though to me my first name was acceptable, too. Later on, I referred to many of my students formally, but others using just their first names. I didn’t make any attempt to be consistant about it, but I always made the effort to remember one of the other.
    I also remember two classes in which I taught a white-headed Vietnamese man and his much younger daughter in the same class. Of course, I called the father Mister Tran, and I called his daughter Miss Tran. (They graduated from college on the same day.)
    An interesting thing about them was that Mister Tran was fluent in Vietnamese and French, but his English was very poor. Miss Tran was fluent in Vietnamese and English, and when the communists had taken over South Vietnam, they had sent her to school to learn Russian.
    Anyway, whenever Mr. Tran asked a question on class, I could not understand it, so Miss Tran was always kind enough to translate it into good English. I can still remember her clear voice in my mind:
    “What my father is trying to ask is ….”
    But then when I answered the question, Mr. Tran did not have any trouble understanding the kind of English that I speak. Lucky for us!
    Miss Tran had a younger brother who also became my student in more than one course. I think that I just called him “Thong”, which was his first name, American style.
    I don’t know if he was really Thong Tran or Tran Thong.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    “I don’t know if he was really Thong Tran or Tran Thong.
    Well, a trannie thong is adjustable, so not knowing which way it should goe is somewhat understandable. That is probably quite relevant to MM’s post so keep it in mind.

  • venqax

    I was aware that the etymology of the word *boy* was murky. That’s particularly interesting, IMO, because it is such a common word. I’ve heard that the origin of *black* is similarly unlcear, but many sources list its lineage as straightforward: from Proto-Germanic *blakaz “burned”, farther back PIE *bhleg- “to burn, gleam, shine, flash”. I don’t know how definitive those are.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Venqax: I do not see any excuse whatever for your insulting the entire Tran family of Vietnamese-Americans. What IS the matter with you?
    They are all fine people and good scholars, too. I taught three of them at Capitol College, and a fourth earned his B.S. in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    We know, DAW: Mr. Tran, Miss Tran, Tran Thong or Thong Tran and another one. We should probably know his name and the full names of the others, too. What did they get their degrees in? Do you know what their favorite colors or foods were, or their zodiacal signs? Are there more Trans floating around our there or are those 4 the whole set? Not making fun of them. I am Tran-sfixed and en-Tranc-ed by the lot. They are especially relevant to the concept of Boy Oh Boy, obviously.

    BTW, Jesus’ birth as a baby is only mentioned in 2 of the 4 Gospels. Just trying to keep those darn relevant and crucial facts straight as they relate to Boy Oh Boy.

Leave a comment: