Origins of the term Tomboy?

Deborah Cameron d.j.cameron at STRATH.AC.UK
Wed Nov 17 14:46:12 UTC 1999

At 18:34 16/11/99 -0600, you wrote:
>I'm forwarding a question from a colleague.  You can answer her directly or
>to the list.  Thanks.  Joan
>From:         "Samantha M. Cahill" <cahil002 at MAILHOST1.CSUSM.EDU>
>Organization: CSUSM
>Subject:      Origins of the term Tomboy
>To:           WMST-L at UMDD.UMD.EDU
>I just came from a rather interesting discussion in a course on the social
>construction of women's sexuality.   The readings for the class included
>readings on female masculinity.  In the discussion on this topic the category
>of "tomboy" was discussed. One particularly interesting point that was
made by
>a student was the way in which the identification of "tomboy" was still a
>towards being male identified, as opposed to characteristic of female
>At this point the term itself came into question, and no one was able to
>pinpoint the origin of the term.
>Is there any critical literature out there on the origin of this term,
when it
>was first used, and how it came to be defined in its contemporary sense?

I have just hauled out my OED and discovered that the first sense of
'tomboy' listed, from the early C16, is a rude, forward and boisterous
*boy*, but its use to denote a *girl* of similar character is also recorded
from 1509. So, the word was always somewhat pejorative in reference to both
sexes. However, since the 'boy' sense is marked 'obs' (obsolete) and the
last citation listed for it is late C16, we may infer that 'tomboy' quite
quickly specialised to refer to girls. This seems to bear some comparison
to the pattern of semantic nonequivalence discussed in the classic 1970s
piece, 'Semantic derogation of women' by Muriel Schulz. Another sense the
OED gives is 'bold, immodest woman' (also marked obsolete). The 'immodest'
part, together with the word 'hoyden' in several citations, makes me wonder
if the meaning was also at one time sexualised (i.e. it connoted loose
morals/prostitution, like many female-referring words discussed by Schulz).
However, it is hard to tell from the examples given: the connotations could
be more about low class status. In Britain, 'tom' is a derogatory slang
term for prostitute (there is also a verb, to tom), but the OED lists this
as dating from the 1960s so 'tomboy' cannot be derived from it.

This inquiry has caused me to discover something I did not know--that the
term 'tomboy' in its present-day sense is not a modern development but
almost 500 years old. I am happy to have found this out. Nevertheless it
surprises me how often people post queries to this list about word origins,
given that the answers (or at least, the best answers we can get in most
cases) are readily available in standard reference works, i.e. historical
dictionaries. If people haven't yet experienced the delights of the Oxford
English Dictionary, I can thoroughly recommend them (especially on CD-ROM,
though in this instance I used the Compact print edition which you have to
read with a magnifying glass--it lives in my study at home and I wouldn't
be without it).

Of course, this post also illustrates the limitations of knowledge about
word origins for illuminating contemporary uses of a word. HOW 'tomboy'
came to mean what it does to us, and what ideological work the word does
today, are questions that none of the above information can really answer.
I suspect it would be more illuminating for current feminist purposes to
look more closely at uses of the word in expert and popular child
development literature during this century than to speculate about what it
meant to English-speakers in the 1500s.

>~ hello from joan e. aitken <aitkenj at>

More information about the Fling mailing list