DEEP THOUGHTS | Etymology and Word Choice

Since I launched the blog in May of 2010, almost two years ago exactly, I've been blown away with how positive and genuinely enthusiastic people have been about this topic. The blogosphere can be a pretty nasty place with anonymous commenters, but the followers and readers of this blog have been and are tremendously supportive, positive, friendly and smart. I'm so thankful for that. To that end, I want to bring up an interesting and rather complex criticism that I've faced recently as I work to publicize the book.

Why use the word tomboy? Here's a sampling of comments I've received on the blog,  in emails, and on other websites:

When are strong, independent, fashionable women going to be defined by a term that doesn't include "boy"?

There is nothing ‘boy-like’ if you grew up playing in the dirt, throwing a ball or playing hockey! That IS what being a girl is!

My response:
First, the aesthetic I've curated here is based from the idea of women borrowing from or being inspired by menswear. Then, I find it goes much deeper. That correlation between the spirit and this singular style is what Tomboy Style is based on. In other words, there are strong, independent, fashionable women that dress in a traditionally feminine way as well. Those women wouldn't be accurately applauded under the word tomboy. In fact there are some amazing amazing women that are all of those things that have never landed on this blog because their style doesn't edge toward or encompass the tomboy aesthetic.

So yes, I agree, in an ideal world a girl playing in the dirt and throwing a ball should just be a designation of what kind of kid you are, not what kind of boyish-girl you are. But gender lines do exist. Yes, we are blurring these lines more and more and accepting a less rigid approach every decade, but these lines are still deep—in advertising, in fashion, in almost everything. I was born in 1983, well after the Women's Liberation Movement, and I (maybe naively, maybe blindly) have never remembered feeling that my gender would hold me back or that there were things I couldn't achieve that my male peers could. I'm so lucky to have landed where I did in the arc of feminism (although there are still clearly inequalities) and so grateful to all the women that I celebrate on this blog and in the book who pushed those boundaries and dared to live and dress differently, precicely so I could have the luxury of feeling the way I do now. Tomboy Style is about celebrating the women that came before us and urging women to continue to be who they are. Sometimes it's as surface as a simple fashion choice, but often it's about the woman's spirit. The word may be imperfect, like countless words in the English language, but I'm not sure there's a better one out there that so neatly describes what's on this website and in the book. And even if there was, I'd probably still use the word tomboy, because I think maybe we're redefining it as a new kind of feminity here and now—and that's really empowering.

Those are my two cents, but I'd really like to hear your thoughts and opinions as well.

And if you're interested in the Etymology:
The noun “tomboy” (formed by joining the male name Tom and the word “boy”) was coined sometime before 1553, and meant a boy who was rude or boisterous. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says it was related to the terms “tom-fool” (a buffoon) and later “tomfoolery.” And according to the Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins, since “Thomas” was the archetypal male name, the word “tom” was often used in the 16th century to indicate maleness (hence “tomcat”) and male aggression. In 1579 the word “tomboy” was applied to a bold or immodest woman. By 1592 it was applied to a girl who acted like a spirited or boisterous boy, and that’s been its meaning ever since.


Elizabeth Alley said...

While I understand the criticism, I wouldn't change a thing. I grew up in the 70's/80's and I think of "tomboy" as having a specific meaning that you capture really well on your blog. I also think the style that your blog embodies moves beyond that into a new meaning, which is awesome.

rachel said...

There are always going to be people who put a lot of stake into word choice, and I think it's something I've given a lot of thought to lately, too (also in terms of gender). Strangely enough, it's the people who want to think outside the meanings of words who also seem to place the most importance on their original meaning. I'm more in your camp - I believe in redefinition. After all, everything has to be called soooomething. Your vision of "tomboy" is cohesive and meaningful and has absolutely helped me continue to grow into my own style that definitely fits within your tomboy definition.

Veronika from Lark said...

People get really caught up in semantics, particularly where gender is concerned, so one can't let yourself get too worried about everyone's two cents. I love what Rachel wrote about how people who want to think outside of the meanings of words are the ones placing the most importance on their original meaning. It's like they are having a tug of war with themselves.

Your blog is a big inspiration for me. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

here here, Lizzie! Well articulated!!

Melissa said...

I'm a proud tomboy, raising two little tomboys. Absolutely no negative connotations for me. It's a charming word that describes a lifestyle. That's it! Thanks for your lovely book. I cannot put it down. You've done justice to a personal style that I've even cultivating for nearly forty years. I tell myself I'm a Sophisticate, but my sweet husband says I'm a Girl-Next-Door. Ah, well - a girl can dream!

Shana said...

I think a better distinction is to talk about masculine/feminine vs men and women. The word tomboy, to me, implies a woman who exhibits some traditionally masculine traits. The piece we're missing, I think, is that men and women are comprised of both masculine AND feminine traits. So yeah - a girl digging in the dirt and playing hockey is just...a girl. And like all other girls, she has both masculine and feminine traits. But because we're all different, the masculine/feminine mix is different. Which is awesome, when you think about it.

I think the key is to get away from the stereotypes and to acknowledge that humans are varied, complex creatures.

The tomboy label may rub the wrong way because it could be seen as a stereotype...but at least it is one that allows for a greater complexity of character than other traditional woman stereotypes (bombshell, sex kitten, 50's housewife, even, to quote the Missrepresentation movie, the "fighting f@ck toy"). So I think I'm ok with it.

Stephanie Keep said...

Like many commenting here, I see both sides of this argument. While 'tomboy' inherently suggests a male origin that is being 'borrowed' from (which is, as you said, an underlying premise for the fashion/style stance of your blog), I think the word itself is perfect for the style you focus on. Really, the problem isn't with the word you chose, but is actually inherent to the English language itself. You're at the mercy of it, as we all are! Because no word for the attitude you're focusing on exists, you had to choose something, and the best we have in our language box is 'tomboy.' I don' t think you should be attacked for this. It simply brings up an interesting point for discussion, which is awesome. As you move around the country promoting your book, you have the opportunity to discuss gender roles and traits with people from all over and the chance to get them thinking! Honestly, if your goal were to open discussion about what it means to play a certain gender role, you may have hit on the perfect term. :)

It would be interesting to see what might happen to your book if it gets translated into other languages. What connotations might there be for the words they choose for those different cultures?

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moet b. said...

I agree with Rachel's post above. I totally relate to your use of the term tomboy & love your book

Leah said...

I wouldn't worry about it. It seems that there are so many people out there nowadays who find it necessary to over think everything and then criticize. My advice to them is this: if you don't like it, then don't read it, eat it, go to it, etc. etc. I love Tomboy Style and admire you for staying true to your aesthetic.

randc said...

I initially wrote an essay but felt it was rather lengthy to be putting in a comments section. Suffice it to say, I take no issue with the word "tomboy". It's a word, it has meaning, and it doesn't matter to me that the word "boy" is in it. What a troubled world this would be if we went around redefining every term that offended a person. Signed, a Tomboy

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

You are right on!
You said, "...naive/blind..."
I say, No Way! I have never felt like I was being held back. I can do anything I choose! I can be feminine & tomboy and I can do both at the same time. I love all facets of me! Fine & frilly - rough & tumble.
(I graduated high school the year you were born!)

Nancy Manning said...

While I am old enough to be your mo...uh, older sister (wink) I never thought much about defining my personal style, even though I do interior design for a living. All I know is I could never feel comfortable in the Kate Spade girly styles so many designers are drawn towards. I read the piece on you in the L.A. Times this morning and saw myself. Yes, the polos. Yes, the blazers, yes, the hiking boots and borrowed men's vests. I WAS called a tomboy growing up. I will proudly wear that badge now.

Audrey said...

Ha, i could be easily your mother! gosh saying this, haha..reminds about how I grew up, fighting with boys but with a girly skirt and girly shoes... don't worry sometimes people taking words to serious and don't understand the contents of this great blog! my goodness, are you realy receiving that kind of comments!!!? Keep up the "Tomboy" style, i love it.

Lovely greetings from Holland!


Amanda said...

I like the term Tomboy. I understand the concern with it, but to me it signifies that I am both feminine (by my obviously girly appearance) but contain traces of masculine traits. Granted, the designation of those traits and feminine or masculine are inherently a byproduct of gender lines. But the term Tomboy makes it clear that I am okay with blurring those gender lines within me.

Which is something I think we all tend to do, to some extent. Most of us have some level of femininity and masculinity within us. Just not all of us embrace both aspects fully, in an outwardly fashion.

Lizzie said...

These are all such great comments. Like I said, the readers of this blog are smart. Thanks everyone. xx

Catherine said...

People are always going to have criticism, especially if something becomes successful or popular. Speaking from a marketing mind, "tomboy" seems to be the most succinct and most universally recognizable way to define the type of style that your blog and book portrays. Thus, it is a perfect title. Consider the criticism a congratulations (i.e. 'you've made it').


SalvagedExpression said...

I certainly understand the desire to say "Can't we just be different without putting a label on it and making us separate as well?" It's true we should be more open to just letting people be how they are without attaching a label and a pathology to it. Still the great thing about the internet is that we can find people who have ideas and experiences like ours not to exclude others, but to celebrate our own uniqueness. When I want to find women who express their femininity the way I do (with power tools and painted nails) Tomboy is one of the first words I'd choose. I think when most of us picture a tomboy we picture a girl with a mud covered smile, so how bad can the connotation really be when it conjures an image of such a happy person?
It's not about the label it's about enjoying being the one wearing it.
P.S. I was born the same year as you in soil well suited to the growth of a tomboy. It's cool to see how your sentiments mirror my own!
Long comment is long, sorry!

Danny said...

"I love you just the way you are"...that's me singing by the way....seriously, it IS all about the spirit of things (and words) and dang those people for getting their Negative Nelly noses all up in your doin' sumpthin special with your life positivity!!!

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school, there was a boy who felt uncomfortable saying "tomboy" (I assume he was a feminist), so instead used the term "tomgirl". At the time, it rather pissed me off, because I felt that it wasn't the actual word and that you shouldn't be afraid to attach the word "boy" to a girl, as if it were somehow shameful.

I still prefer the word "tomboy", but I kind of see his point now.

Anonymous said...

I'm in my early 20's and like the word tomboy because it's unique and describes me really well. I'm not caught up on stupid sensitivity paranoia that say we have to avoid labels. I have girl parts and have mostly guy friends. (Though if I want to get specific I call myself a nerdy goth tomboy.)

I can wield a soldering iron, program a microcontroller, run a CNC mill, frag my guy friends' asses in a FPS, punch hard in a fight ~ but then take a shower, put on a black lace dress, makeup and buckle boots then go dancing with my girlfriend.

I got told I'm self loathing because I embrace a non PC label for myself ~ but screw them. It's who I am.

I get the best of both worlds and don't make excuses for who I am.