September 13, 2009



The Oxford English Dictionary cites

tomboy as "a girl who behaves like a spirited or boisterous boy; a wild romping girl; a hoyden."

That final synonym, hoyden, gives a hard kick, so be careful with it:

hoyden: "A rude, or ill-bred girl (or woman); a boisterous noisy girl."


Tomboy, in the sense of "a romping girl," appeared in a 1592 comedy by John Lyly titled Midas. In an early scene, two conversing pages, Licio and Petulus, are pleased to be interrupted by the arrival of the maid Pipenetta:

Enter Pipenetta

Licio. But soft, here comes Pipenetta : what newes ?

Pipenetta. I would not be in your coats for any thing.

Licio. Indeed if thou shouldest rigge vp and downe in our jackets, thou wouldst be thought a very tomboy.


The present media news cycle finds tomboy appearing in blog commentaries about the sex-orientation testing of South African sprinter Caster Semanya (right).

The Pale Observer notes:

All interviews with Caster's family, friends and community at large have described her as a tomboy — a girl who favoured trousers and football to lipstick and boyfriends... They were all adamant that she is a girl, and that the world should abandon the ridiculous and judgemental notions of what a girl should look like, be like...

And in The Huffington Post, Marcia Descanctis asserts:

Let's hope this poor child [Caster Semanya] will not spend the rest of her life as a punchline. Every flat-chested girl? Caster. Every tomboy? Caster. Every woman with biceps? Caster. The woman at the bar with a too-low voice? Caster. It is very unfair, and it could and should have been avoided.


The Brewer Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (in the Wordsworth Reference Edition of 1993) defines tomboy as "romping girl, formerly used for a harlot." It cites the following associations: Anglo Saxon tumbere, a dancer or romper; Danish, tumle, "to tumble about"; French, tomber, and Spanish tumbar: our tumble. "The word may either be tumble-boy (one who romps like a boy), or a tumber (one who romps), the word boy being a corruption."


Webster's Online Dictionary, that ever-useful and ofttimes witty source of etymological lore, tells us that
[h]istorically tomboys were defined by both behaviour (according to the sterotypical gender role of boys) and wearing boys' clothing. In recent times, as the use of "traditional" clothing such as dresses, blouses, and skirts steadily declines among females, the distinction has become almost solely one of behaviour. This "middle" philosophy was defined by one girl as
No I don't have any pink outfits or shorty shorts, I don't go for cheerleading tryouts, and I don't constantly stare in the mirror — but I also don't only shop in the boys department, dislike people for acting prissy, or get sweaty playing football every afternoon.

"You romp!"

If you find yourself in a situation in which the word tomboy would work but you want a word with a little more edge, something short of the pointed hoyden — which most people would not recognize anyway — go for the noun romp:

One who romps; especially a play-loving, lively, merry girl (or woman),
as did Thomas De Quincy in 1846:
Such a might call a romp; but not a hoyden, observe; no horse-play.
(Works. III. 171). —OED.


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