Back on December 31st, I posted on male photographer David Arnot and his Boy Next Door calendars (for 2012 and 2013), with a full set of the images from the 2012 calendar. On Facebook, Michael Newman then inquired:

On a language point, doesn’t “boys next door,” imply a kind of (pseudo)unposed twinkish look? If so, these guys may be hot, but not in a boy-next-door way.

Michael is both a card-carrying linguist and a gay man, so brings two kinds of inside information to the discussion, both relevant, and, in this case, his critique is right on. These  guys might or might not be hot — that’s a matter of taste — but they’re not boys next door, in modern American English, at any rate

In this variety, boy next door is a fixed expression, a kind of phrasal idiom picking out men by their age and appearance — they are young, no more than their early 20s, and young-looking — and by their character — they are amiable and dependable (so that a loutish 17-year-old-old meth dealer would not qualify); there is absolutely no requirement that the young man in question actually live next door to the speaker. Translating all this into a gay context (given that Arnot’s photographs are homoerotic), we get to the gay folk taxon of the TWINK: stereotypically,

“Twink” is a gay slang term describing a young or young-looking gay man with a slender, ectomorph build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair. (link)

Arnot’s men just don’t fit this picture.

Thinking this through led me to the extraordinary complexity of boy in modern English. Start with the distinction between the relational noun boy ‘son’ (used as the object of have, as in We have three boys and two girls, all grown up now, or with possessive modifiers, as in Our boys are all artists, and our girls are all in technology) and the non-relational noun boy ‘male child, little boy’, with much wider syntax. The usage of the non-relational noun is especially complex, because it marks age as well as sex and so gives rise to all kinds of questions about the taxonomy of age: in various technical contexts, bright lines are made between the technical taxa CHILD and ADULT, but these distinctions map very poorly onto the folk taxonomy, which involves a three-way distinction CHILD (boy ‘little boy’), YOUTH (with various lexical manifestations), and ADULT (grown-up, etc.). So the male-female gender distinction for people in the YOUTH taxon has shifted over the years in its primary lexical manifestations (especially for the young people in question), from boy vs. girl to guy vs. girl.

Now to a one-volume dictionary’s — NOAD2’s — account of the usage:

1 a male child or young man: a group of six boys.

• a son: she put her little boy to bed.

• [ with modifier ] a male child or young man who does a specified job: a delivery boy.

2 [ usu. with adj. ] used informally or lightheartedly to refer to a man: the inspector was a local boy .

dated used as a friendly form of address from one man to another, often from an older man to a young man: my dear boy, don’t say another word!

dated, offensive (often used as a form of address) a black male servant or worker.

• used as a form of address to a male dog: down boy, down!

exclam. informalused to express strong feelings, esp. of excitement or admiration: oh boy, that’s wonderful!


the big boys men or organizations considered to be the most powerful and successful.

boys will be boys used to express the view that mischievous or childish behavior is typical of boys or young men and should not cause surprise when it occurs.

one of the boys an accepted member of a group, esp. a group of men: he expected to be treated just like one of the boys | Ms. Patton is one of the boys.

There’s quite a lot not covered here: boyfriend (and girlfriend) and cowboy, for instance, which mark only sex, and boy band, which marks both age and sex. And a collection of uses of boy to mean ‘gay male’ (as in gayboys and in Boystown, the gay village in Chicago, in both of which the age component is largely given up).

Then three clusters of uses: boy as subordinative or submissive; boy as affiliative; and boy for jocular reference.

Subordinative boy: Here fall a conventional use of Boy as a counterpart to Daddy in a specific type of gay male relationship; more generally, boy used, especially in vocatives, for the submissive partner in gay sexual interactions (where it alternates with whore, bitch, and slut, and, less commonly, cunt, queer, and fag(got)); and, most famously, boy used offensively as a vocative for a black male servant.

It turns out that subordinative boy seems to be the historically original use. Dictionaries track boy back to Middle English, where it denoted a male servant; before that, the etymology is unkown.

Affiliative boy: This is the usage in a night out with the boys, poker with the boys, and the like. The reference is to grown men.

And in occurrences of the boys with reference to young men, often overlapping with the jocular uses coming up. So, an ad (this month) for a return of the television show Psych to the regular schedule crows


referring to the protagonists Sean and Gus, young men who spar ornamentally in adolescent fashion with each other and almost everyone else.

Jocular boy: Here I quote my own uses of self-referential the boy in two Facebook postings about my recovery from hip replacement surgery. From 12/19/20:

The boy is back in briefs! Recent big advances in my abilities (a) to lift my right leg and (b) to bend forward without threatening my hip have opened up a big area of normal life; I could almost surely get back into my jeans, and I’ll try that tomorrow. (Socks continue to be out of range without special equipment, but I’m creeping up on them.)

And the next day:

And today: the boy is back in jeans! It was a snap. One more step towards normal life.

(Socks came soon after.)

Bonus discussion, on the “types” of men who get to be subjects of male calendars and of male porn in general: a catalog of sexual interests. Twinks of course, but also: uncut men, men in business garb, ranch hands (the cowboy fantasy), college men, Latinos, hustlers (from, Cubans, black men, bears, fitness models, rugged guys, leather men, international models. (Then, in porn flicks, any number of fetishes, plus specialties like heavily tattooed men, and, at the other extreme, inkless men. And in calendars, the totally dick-focused presentation of models from underneath, as they would be viewed by a man on his knees in front of them; it makes the cocks look really, really big.) The David Arnot models I posted about count as hunks or studs, all-purpose categories for hot men outside of the twink/bear/leather axes.


8 Responses to “boys”

  1. Walt Becker Says:

    it can also just mean someone who is part of an exclusively (0r even just primarily) male group. For example, our law firm represented a group of what Pres. Bush liked to call “plaintiffs’ lawyers” as if that was some sort of insult. They were routinely referred to –even to their face(s) — as “the boys.” Non were under 40.

  2. Calendars: Boy Next Door, Philip Fusco | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Michael is both a card-carrying linguist and a gay man, so brings two kinds of inside information to the discussion, both relevant, and, in this case, his critique is right on. These  guys might or might not be hot — that’s a matter of taste — but they’re not boys next door, in modern American English, at any rate. (link) […]

  3. Brief notice: boss 3/12/13 | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] terms are a long-standing interest of mine. Discussion of pal and sport here, boy here, and medical address terms […]

  4. Pin-up boys | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] crude porn shots to artful male photography. And they cater to a spectrum of sexual interests. From a posting of mine in January, with a discussion […]

  5. More boys | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] And we’re back on the topic of who counts as a boy. […]

  6. JackH Says:

    My mother’s definition was any male younger than she was. So a 60 year old would have been a boy to her when she was 70.

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