Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

She’s such a tomboy

with 10 comments


Image by fishin widow via Flickr

If a girl is physically active, or doesn’t like prissy dresses, or climbs trees, or expresses a wish to become a professional footballer, she is labelled a ‘tomboy’.

This is because the unthinking assumption is that anyone confident, energetic and daring must in some way be an honorary male.

Well, pardon me all over the place, but girls can demonstrate those qualities too and should be able to do so without the risk of having their gender impugned.

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

He or she — or they?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?


10 Responses

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  1. I have used this word more than once but will not in future (or will use with disclaimer).

    BTW, what are the equivalent terms/words/adjectives for males who are like females?

    • Hi, Vikas — that’s a very interesting question! I think most of the terms used about males would probably be quite abusive (which is interesting in itself as a general comment on how ‘female’ characteristics are judged). However, you will see that not everyone agrees with my opinions about the word ‘tomboy’: see the very interesting comment from kgd26 on this post.


      29/12/2009 at 3:31 pm

      • I read it of course (all comments come to my mailbox until I unsubscribe). I am sure you will give her an elaborate response. I will not be surprised if I find more people liking the term!

        BTW, in India it is common to call daughters ‘beta’ (Hindi for son) while loving them.

        PS: I read your reply to her as I typed this!

        • Hi, again, Vikas — how interesting about the word ‘beta’! Thanks for sharing that.


          29/12/2009 at 3:57 pm

  2. Hi there. Stumbled across your blog on the dashboard and just wanted to make a comment on it.

    While I do understand your viewpoint and respect it, I have to disagree with the notion that “tomboy” is a negative term. As a self proclaimed tomboy, I personally find it as a very decent description of myself. I’m a female with essentially all male friends (I’ve already told my best friend he has no choice but to be my maid of honor in my wedding). They’ve described me as, “She can play sports as well as us, she knows about sports as well as us, and she can outdrink us. She’s the coolest girl we know.”

    I personally don’t see it as a strike against women that I am labeled this. If anything, I consider it a compliment because it means I’m respected.

    Interesting post!


    29/12/2009 at 2:52 pm

    • Hi, there, kgd26 — thanks so much for taking the time to comment on my post — and I respect your viewpoint. However, I think your comment that the term ‘tomboy’ means that you are respected is an interesting one. I think you are respected as a person in your own right — not, as suggested in my original post, because you are an ‘honorary male’. You are obviously a really cool woman — you don’t need to be called a ‘boy’ for that to shine through. I hope you drop by again soon. Thanks for visiting.


      29/12/2009 at 3:38 pm

  3. Hi there Deborah,

    I’m personally of the opinion that there ARE general differences between men and women (besides the obvious), and that it IS possible to identify when a girl/woman is acting more like a man, and vice versa. Thus when a person is referred to as a tomboy, it signifies that, all things considered, the person displays characteristics more commonly seen in males. I don’t think it’s a negative term. It does not mean that females never display so-called masculine traits, but it does acknowledge that some traits are seen more in one gender than another.


    29/12/2009 at 9:41 pm

    • Hi, David — thanks very much for your thoughtful comments which raise all kinds of questions such as how much the differences we see between men and women are innate or culturally influenced. I still think that ‘tomboy’ when applied to a girl or woman is an unwelcome term. Many of the characteristics which when displayed by a female result in her being called a ‘tomboy’ are generally seen as positive. This leads to an unthinking assumption that such positive traits cannot be termed ‘female’. You will note from kgd26’s comments above that she sees the term ‘tomboy’ as a ‘compliment’ — yet, tellingly, a boy who displays ‘female’ characteristics would more likely be teased or chided rather than praised and would almost certainly not feel ‘complimented’. Thanks again — good to hear from you.


      30/12/2009 at 8:48 am

  4. This old “tomboy” debate rumbles on and on. Even the construction: “tom” and “boy” speaks volumes. It’s the teenage equivalent of “feisty”. A young girl who likes footie and tree houses is immediately a “tomboy” i.e isn’t she a little cutie acting like a boy. Then as a young woman, when she doesn’t sit quietly in the corner crocheting but dares to speak her mind, she is branded as “feisty”. Wouldn’t it be refreshing for a young boy who likes ballet to feel good about himself if he was known (IF we have to use labels) as a “suegirl” instead of feeling completely humiliated by being branded a “sissy”. I am so sick and tired of it – especially as Tom remains one of the most popular boy’s names forever and the day.

    Lizi B

    06/01/2010 at 3:50 pm

    • Hello, Lizi B — thanks for dropping by again. That inversion of ‘tomboy’ to ‘suegirl’ is so telling. I totally agree with your analysis — thanks for taking the time to share it.


      06/01/2010 at 4:05 pm

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