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.”