Friday, September 23, 2011

BOY/KID/LAD: A Bit of Sorting

How should we think of young men?  I return to this question now and then.  Off and on I ponder the difference between “the boy” and “the kid.”  I’ve decided part of the difference is that the “boy” is English and the “kid” is American.
The meaning of the boy in English might be in part because of the primogeniture laws which made the gender of a baby of such enormous political importance, esp. in terms of inheriting the throne or other prestigious entitlements.  These inheritances affect many lives because the oldest boy, the inheritor, would not just grow wealthy from his holdings but also govern the people within his “patch” whether a nation or a land-grant within it.  Their lives will depend upon his wisdom and diligence.  Also, men were the key to the Brit colonies.  No women did the semi-military work of governing foreign peoples.  (If they had, colonies would have been quite different.)
A main preparation for upperclass careers was the school system, which concentrated the upper classes in all-male boarding schools, an arrangement that was a little like curing youth by forcing adulthood, very hierarchical, punishment-laden, unforgiving, no-child-left-behind because we throw out the ones we break into pieces.  A boot camp.  In fact, it has deformed generations and was, of course, the model for the notorious boarding schools for Indians in America.  Religion and patriotism dominated all lives.  Suffering was a virtue.  (Escaping on adventure was a deep yearning that was one of the rewards of the colonial administrator.)  Sex got all mixed up.
"Boy” is one of those words that can be praise or blame, depending on the context.  Technically, it only means a young male human, so the vibe it gets has to come from the circumstances.  In many times and places “boy” meant someone who had to do work that was trivial (“boot boy”), dirty (chimney sweep,), tiresome (forge bellows operator, organ bellows operator), exposed (paper boy, messenger), and risky (coal mine pit pony tender).  The pay-off was learning the world, not in the way a school boy would, but in a far more realistic underfoot way.  If he could stick with it, he might become a formal apprentice and really begin to learn how to be a shoemaker or metalsmith or printer.  Something real.  If he had bad luck -- well, boys are expendable.  There are lots of them.
Nowadays boys are criticized for inhabiting fantasy worlds, gaming.  It strikes me as good preparation for modern life.
“Boy” in the States might be a “kid.”  Quite a different sort of role.  At first there was no pre-existing assignment of inheritable land, education was haphazard and local, and on the frontier “kid” slipped away from being gender-specific.  The English system persisted to some extent in the south, but with servants and tutors, which would produce quite a different person.  Of course, as in England, those without wealth were nothing.  In fact, slaves were not allowed to read or write.  Not that it stopped them.  Up north were the imported major universities, but “professionals” had to rub along with “enthusiasts” who simply seized their Bibles or healing substances and went out to do what they did. At first the work of lawyers was probably as much creating laws as interpreting them.
I suspect there was a strong counter-current of informal -- may I say “organic” -- education from African to white, from Indian to white -- the whites being of several sorts depending on origins and economics.  This would be in the beginning.  Later the whites were even more polyglot immigrants and the schools were supposed to iron (as in rod) it out of them as though they were Indians.  They had better success with immigrants since they WANTED to fit into a new country.  At this point the women had to be educated so that they could teach what passed as culture to the children.  The Indians had education thrust upon them, and, anyway, book learning was not a proper education for a frontier where one survived by hunting.
I’m just doodling around here, but it would be interesting to think about the degree to which today’s Republicans are still trying to become landed gentry in the English style, while the Democrats combine the defiance of Ulstermen with the pretended compliance of the indigenous peoples.
It does make a difference when a girl can be a “kid.”  England had it’s stage tradition of male actors taking on the parts of girls who are pretending to be men.  Pre-contact indigenous America had a melee of roles, all practical more than idealized.  Until less than a hundred years ago, a high proportion of women died in childbirth, leaving their girl children at the mercy of whoever was around.  They were well-advised to masquerade as boys, even to the point of enlisting in the army.  
As soon as a girl was reproductive, she was no longer a kid.  Maybe that’s true of boys, too.  Part of the transformation of adolescence is going from kidhood to adulthood, but a boy can be a boy -- well, some are boys all their lives.   I got to be a kid until I was 27 -- that’s when I married and then I was a gal.  It was a mistake, but there’s no going back.  After I was divorced, I was a broad.  Now that I'm old, the local men call me, sarcastically pretending they are being complimentary, "young lady."
Returning to the Brits, what about a “lad”?  Oh, lads are wicked!   Australia is packed with them.  I found these definitions on the Internet.
"An Australian term used to describe teenagers who wear a nautica, polo or nike white hat, tilted upright revealing the front of their hair with the strap at the back done up tight so it is dangling out the back, a striped polo or nautica shirt with the collar popped and either saucony or nautica trackies or shorts, topped off with nike Tnz which are fresh. These lads think they are tough but are generally small and skinny and travel in packs trying to roll other innocent bystanders for their worth."

A lad is a male who specializes in creating and distributing exquisite banter. Though most lads are youngish (late teens and early twenties) age is not a defining characteristic and you will find both young lads and old lads. Some special skills of lads include, but are not limited to the following:

- Binning Pints  
- Exposing genitalia and getting naked in public places 
- Throwing up after copious alcohol consumption 
- Spousal Abuse 
- Getting kicked out of pubs/nightclubs for being overly offensive

Excelling in all areas will earn a lad the title of "top lad". There is no higher praise that can be bequeathed upon an individual.

The British version of guy

A male person of any age between early boyhood and maturity
Origin:  Middle English ladde
First Known Use: 14th century
Brit : a man with whom you are friendly : fellow, chap   In British English, a man who is a bit of a lad does things that are considered a bit wild, such as getting drunk and having sexual relations with many women.

Can a lad be gay?  Is a lad always involved in sports?  Can a lad be an effective military man?  So much is context.  What’s the American equivalent of a “lad?” 

Boy!  Boy!  Bring me my dictionary! 


Ron Scheer said...

A historian has observed that during the Civil War, Confederate troops were referred to as "boys" while in the North, soldiers were called "men."

prairie mary said...

Ah, yes. And the blacks, like all minorities, are always "boys." Which is only marginally better -- maybe not -- than being an Indian referred to as a "buck," though a "young buck" is not so different from a "lad" maybe.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

to me, "boy" is a male child before puberty; after that, I like the term "youth" (roughly teen years) until he is a fullgrown man. Of course, some boys skip the youth stage and become men due to circumstances, such as going to war or supporting their family before a typical age to do so. Plus the qualities of soul of course.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I'm sure read a book in my college linguistics class that catalogued usage of these words throughout the English-speaking world...I'm sorry I can't find the reference. It would have been from the mid-seventies.

Here in the Southern Appalachians, I've noticed a usage you don't mention. Adult men use "boy" to refer to their peers in age and social status--the "boys I grew up with," and men like them. "Girl" is used similarly, although less often.

"Kids" is used here in place of "children," echoing the German "Kinder." There's no trace of "Kid" or "Kiddo" as an endearment, which was common where I grew up (Southwestern Iowa), where the old folks still spoke German at home. ("Here's lookin' at you, kid.")