The Grammarphobia Blog

Who put the “tom” in “tomboy”?

Q: What is the etymology and history of the word tomboy?

A: According to the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the noun “tomboy” (formed by joining the male name Tom and the word “boy”) was coined sometime before 1553, and meant a boy who was rude or boisterous. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says it was related to the terms “tom-fool” (a buffoon) and later “tomfoolery.” And according to the Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins, since “Thomas” was the archetypal male name, the word “tom” was often used in the 16th century to indicate maleness (hence “tomcat”) and male aggression.

In 1579 the word “tomboy” was applied to a bold or immodest woman. By 1592 it was applied to a girl who acted like a spirited or boisterous boy, and that’s been its meaning ever since.