The Grammarphobia Blog

Who is the Tom in tomboy?

Q: I wonder if you can answer my 14-year-old goddaughter’s question: “Who is the Tom in tomboy?”

A: The name “Tom,” short of course for “Thomas,” has often been used as “a generic name for any male representative of the common people,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A good illustration is the expression “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” (We once wrote a blog item about this phrase.)

In fact, “Tom” has been used in this way, more or less as a quasi-name or nickname for an ordinary guy, since the 1300s.

To cite another example, in the 1600s, speakers of English used the expression “Tom of all trades” as well as “Jack of all trades.”

And in the 1700s, people began using “tom” as a lower-case noun for a male animal (as in “tom cat,” “tom turkey,” etc.).

When “tomboy” was first recorded in writing (as “Tom boy”) in 1553, it meant “a rude, boisterous, or forward boy,” the OED says.

How did it get this meaning? Here’s one possibility.

Since “Tom” was a name for the common or archetypal male, a particularly rowdy boy was perhaps called a “Tom boy” as another way of saying he was especially boyish – a boy’s boy, in other words.

“Tomboy” soon took on another meaning, according to the OED, that of “a bold or immodest woman.”

This sense was first recorded in 1579, the OED says, in a commentary on Calvin’s sermons.

Here’s the quotation: “Sainte Paule meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboyes, to be shorte, they must not bee unchast.”

Why this meaning of “tomboy”? Here again, we can only guess. It would seem that naughty adult women were perceived as behaving like wayward boys.  

By 1592, the OED says, the term was being used to mean “a girl who behaves like a spirited or boisterous boy; a wild romping girl; a hoyden.”

Again, it would appear that rowdy behavior was thought to be more characteristic of boys than of girls.

The term was defined in a 17th-century glossary as meaning “a girle or wench that leaps up and down like a boy.”

In Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730-36), it’s defined as “a ramping, frolicsome, rude girl.”

And an 1802 journal describes “The violent exercise of the skipping-rope, which is … only fit for some Miss Tom-boy.”

The word “hoyden,” by the way, also began life as a masculine term (“a rude, ignorant, or awkward fellow”).

It was first recorded in the late 1500s, according to citations in the OED, and it took nearly a century for it to be used to mean an ill-bred, rude, boisterous, or noisy girl.

Speaking of boisterous behavior, it’s time for Pat to jump on her tractor and tame the overgrown trails through our meadows and woods.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.