By Anatoly Liberman
Within a year, two recent articles on the origin of the word boy have come to my attention. This is great news. Keeping a talent of such value under a bushel and withholding it from the rest of the world would be unforgivable. Nowadays, if a philological journal does not come as a reward for the membership in a popular society, its circulation is extremely low (seldom beyond a hundred subscribers, most of them being libraries), and I suspect that relatively few of our readers open every volume of Studia Anglica Posnaniensia (SAP, obviously, from Poznań, Poland) and Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics and Semiotic Analysis (IJGLSA, Berkeley, USA). However, I do, and it is my duty to enlighten the non-subscribers.
The publication in SAP by Boris Hlebec is probably a joke. The author derives the English nouns child, boy, and girl from Slavic. Since he is not aware of the many attempts to find the etymology of the words he set out to explain, the joke did not strike me as particularly funny, but I am afraid that someone with an insufficiently developed sense of humor may take the article seriously. The other piece, by Nigel T. Cousins (in IJGLSA), first struck me as another joke, but, as I went on reading, my initial resentment yielded to a good deal of sympathy.
Cousins dug up a fair number of obscure but disconcertingly suggestive words that may shed light on the history of boy. I will skip his references and cite only the most revealing nouns and adjectives. There is French boiel, an old word for “tube”, used obscenely for “the male member.” In the French dictionary, this word, glossed as “tube,” is explained with the help of boyau, which, among other things, means “sausage” and not unexpectedly “penis.” Next, Cousins remarks that bodkin, with its obsolete variant boidekin, may be part of the puzzle. Modern English-speakers remember the word thanks to Hamlet’s bare bodkin. It seems to have a diminutive suffix borrowed from Dutch (perhaps an illusion), but the root is impenetrable. Of course, boy-kin would have suited us better, but then everybody would have guessed that bodkin is a little boy (which it, at first sight, is not). A word meaning “dagger” can certainly acquire the sense “penis,” and here we have more than a conjecture because this transference of the name happened in French: poignard “dagger” is time-honored slang for “male organ.” (The use of poignard in public, in front of women—it was intended as a taunt for a fellow officer who had the habit of walking around with daggers adorning his Caucasian uniform—provoked the fateful duel between the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, 1814-1841, and Nikolay Martynov; in Russia, the language of high society and the drawing room was at that time French.)
The unfamiliar English adjective boistous “full of vigor; thick, stiff” is a rather close synonym of boisterous, whose sexual implication comes clearly to the surface in Romeo and Juliet (I, 4: 25-26). Romeo: “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough/ Too rude, too boisterous; and it pricks like thorn.” Mercutio’s response is facetious, and much in it is made of pricking. Then we encounter the forgotten term poy (again of unknown etymology) “a punting pole” and “a float used to keep a sheep’s head above water” (thus, for all intents and purposes, a buoy). Those who read or have ever read Shakespeare aloud will remember that spirit in his verses should often be pronounced as sprit. From a historical point of view, sprit “a small pole or spar” has nothing to do with spirit, but mischievous phonetics resulted in regular ambiguities in Shakespeare’s texts, because sprit merged with spirit and could denote both “an erect penis” and “sperm”; hence the double entendre of the opening line in Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action.” Poy, it appears, became a synonym of sprit (in addition to being a synonym of buoy) and a near homonym of boy. Very old words are also boyne “to swell,” boine “swelling,” and boysid “swollen.” Boy could also mean “devil.” Cousins emphasizes the fact that devil and penis were often synonymous. Indeed, the image of the Devil turning men into the slaves of their sexual urge was common. Hence hell “vagina” in Elizabethan English and another double entendre in Sonnet 129 (the last two lines): “…yet none knows well/ To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”
Boy emerged in Middle English with the sense “servant”; “male child” developed later (at least, such is the evidence of the extant texts). The beginning of the story is lost. Not improbably, boy is one of the numerous b– and p-words, from bug and bud to pug and puddle, that have something to do with swelling. Some of them are of unquestionable Germanic descent, others are certainly Romance. Many, whatever their country of origin, seem to be sound-imitative and refer to bursting and noise. It was not unusual for them to arise in Germanic, travel to French, and return “home.” Some were coined in France and came to England from there. Constant travels back and forth often make the question—Germanic or Romance?—almost unanswerable. This is especially true of slang and vulgar language carried from land to land by mercenaries, thieves, prostitutes, and all kinds of riffraff (ragtag and bobtail). The vocabulary of copulation has always been in the forefront of international slang (consider the universal spread of the English F-word, at one time probably borrowed from Low German but now a world celebrity).
Whatever the ultimate source of boy, in English it found itself surrounded by words that could designate “penis.” They probably formed a willing union. One aspect of the problem Cousins did not explore (and it is not clear how one can tackle it) is the frequency of the nouns and adjectives he discussed. It has been known for a long time that similar sounding words interact and influence one another. The path from “servant” to “male child” is not particularly circuitous, but the process may have been accelerated or even triggered by the word’s environment. Although boy will of necessity remain obscure (which is not tantamount to saying “origin unknown”), it will pay off to stop deriving it from some one well-defined word and considering the mission accomplished. Among the fringe benefits of Cousin’s research is the idea that bodkin, about which nobody knows anything definite, may have some connection with the circle of boy. Things bursting, sharp, and swollen surround us in our hunt for the etymology of boy on all sides. The plot thickens, and this is a good thing.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”