ME: boe, boi, boye…

ModE: boy


Origin uncertain

Several theories:
A borrowing from French (in that case pre-conquest name evidence is rejected)

  • Anglo Norman boie (unrecorded shortened variant of emboié) meaning person in chains
  • Plausible explanation of the sense ‘male servant’
  • Or more directly connected with Anglo-Norman boie (chain)

An alternative French etymology

  • from Old French boiasse, a variant of Anglo-Nornam baisse (a female servant)
  • the ending –asse as an equivalent of the feminine suffix –esse > a masculine form boie
  • but there is no evidence of the masculine form in French or a feminine form in English

Of Germanic origin: native OE word or as a borrowing

Words for "boy" double as "servant, attendant" across the Indo-European map.
Italian: ragazzo, Middle English knāve, Old Church Slavonic otroku > often difficult to say which meaning came first. 3

Original Meaning4

A male servant, slave (1300)
Perhaps attested earlier as a byname or surname: Boia (OE period)

Other meanings5

  • Rascal/ knave/ rogue/ devil (rarely) (1405)
  • A male child or youth; also a son (1440)
  • In pl. shackles, fetters (1485)
  • A non-white slave (1625)
  • A criminal (1834)
  • A junior military rank (1841)
  • As a familiar address to a male dog (That’s my boy!)
  • US slang for heroin

ModE boy looks like a semantic blend of an onomatopoeic word for an evil spirit (*boi) and a baby word for 'brother' (*bo).6

A noticeable number of the modern words for 'boy', 'girl', and 'child' were originally colloquial nicknames, derogatory and commonplace. These, as is natural, are of the most diverse, and in part obscure, origin.7


1. “boy.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 25 Nov. 2014 <>.

2. “boy.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 25 Nov. 2014 <>.

3. Harper D. “boy.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001. 25 Nov. 2014 <>.

4. “boy.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 25 Nov. 2014 <>.

5. “boy.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 25 Nov. 2014 <>.

6. Liberman, Anatoly, Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

7. Buck, Carl Darling, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, University of Chicago, 1949, reprinted 1988.