BOY - Linguistic Anthropological Notes

By Janssen, Diederik F. | Thymos, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

BOY - Linguistic Anthropological Notes


Janssen, Diederik F., Thymos


This article proposes a linguistic anthropological approach to the notion BOY, drawing attention to diverse research methods including etymology, onomasiology, corpus analysis, semantics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and comparative ethnolinguistics. As a popular and flexible lexical device, BOY may function as an operator on the received nature of manhood (by rendering it contingent on the discourse and narrative of development), but also as a possible aid in its ever-imminent bankruptcy by disengaging its stylistics from essentialist understandings of both gender and life phase. BOY, thus, lies at the heart of discussions about masculinity as it relates to performativity, language, and discourse, but, in important ways, it also exceeds and contests the confinements of gender/masculinity research.

Keywords: boy (word); masculinity; ethno-linguistics; socio-linguistics; social ontology

O blackbird, what a boy you are!

- "Vespers," The Collected Poems of T. E. Brown, 1900.

A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy until they die!

-Philip Roth, 1967, p. 111.

A feature of the March 2006 issue of In These Times (Chaudhry, 2006) lamented what the author interchangeably calls "Peter Pan," "adolescent," and "teen slacker" versions of masculinity allegedly inspired by a "lad lifestyle of 'online porn, drinking, and poker.'" The (anti-consumerist) irritation ventilated here points to the work of establishing what is to be considered mature, real and finalized masculinity, and what is prior to it, in English, boy. What kind of man is so unmanly, that he is in fact a boymana boy, so to speak?

A Boy, So to Speak

Unfortunately, the term boy appears to be used unselfconsciously by many contemporary ethnographers, even those who are specifically committed to the task of sketching a rapid Europeanization of masculinization trajectories. This paper examines linguistic anthropological aspects of the specific semantic entity: boy. Following Duranti (1997), my focus is on language as

... a set of symbolic resources that enter the constitution of social fabric and the individual representation of actual or possible worlds. Such a focus allows linguistic anthropologists to address in innovative ways some of the issues and topics that are at the core of anthropological research such as the politics of representation, the constitution of authority, the legitimation of power, the cultural basis of racism and ethnic conflict, the process of socialization, the cultural construction of the person (or self), the politics of emotion, the relationship between ritual performance and forms of social control, domain-specific knowledge and cognition, artistic performance and the politics of aesthetic consumption, cultural contact and social change, (pp. 3-4)

As this paper clarifies, all issues mentioned above are implicated by the use of the English classifier boy. While my findings predominantly address the English-speaking experience as a case study, throughout I use examples from other language domains as well as language scenes to underscore the salience of a comparative linguistic approach. I will note that boy presents a worthwhile case study for the anthropological linguist, in part because of the boy's semantic and allegorical centrality in masculinity studies as well as pop culture, and also in light of the late 20th-century attention to language as it relates to the ontology of the social subject.

My analysis first requires distinguishing analytic and folk uses of the term. We shall see that conventional and subversive uses of the semantic entity boy reflect the plasticity and generic properties of this seemingly singular term. It continues by tracing contemporary and historical divergence in the word's use. In this context I briefly analyze an example of how this divergence clarifies a specifically nationalist appropriation: "The American Boy. …

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