Still, as a child, I really did not like the term. Too young to push against it, I just accepted my fate-- tomboy.
I didn't know what it meant or how I was supposed to act. Why did I have to be described relative to the boys? Why wasn't it okay just to love what I loved without being positioned as a wannabe boy?
The word has rather negative roots. It's a pejorative not a compliment.
One of the first printed uses was in 1579,
"Sainte Paule meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboyes, to be shorte, they must not bee vnchast."
Even through the middle English you can hear the message-- "women must not be tomboys." The term was not one of endearment, it was one of condemnation. Once society identified a girl as a tomboy, she ought to correct herself and others ought to remove themselves from her company until she does so.
By 1802, not much had improved with the term. The Spirit of Public Journals published this line, "The violent exercise of the skipping-rope, which is..only fit for some Miss Tom~boy."
These women were looked down upon by men-- both elders and suitors. In 1888 Mitford wrote,
"He had no taste for giantesses, and a particular aversion for hoydens and tomboys and women who trespassed against the delicacy of their sex."
Tomboy meant to "trespass the delicacy of their sex" -- and while I'm all for delicacy when it comes to pastry and flowers, sometimes a girl wants to use her legs-- skip rope- do a back flip and not worry that she's branded a hoyden-- a wild threat to society.
Today the use is less pejorative, though still rather unappealing. When little girls start climbing things and playing sports, they are called "tomboys" rather than just athletic girls.
Oh, but I just discovered while visiting a French friend in the Loire Valley that in French the term is far worse. They call girls we call Tomboys, Garçon Manqué! That translates to "a man missing something" -- which in this case is his penis. So in France, girls who are active are pretty much called men without a penis.
I told her that seemed kind of tragic that girls cannot simply be considered active or adventurous. They must be considered in relation to men.
So I'm asking, when you see a little girl doing something that involves mud or athletics just acknowledge her for loving what she loves. Don't turn her into a boy.
I think much of America has moved beyond the original meaning of the word-- but I do hear it from time to time and think we can safely place it in the word graveyard along with hoyden.
Sarah Federman, PhD
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My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
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