Recently I stumbled on a discussion where the word "chico" in Spanish is translated to "boy". To my knowledge, using "chico" to refer to someone younger is considered normal. But in English, calling an adult "boy", even if younger, would be considered rude. I believe "garçon" in French is also rude.

Can someone confirm my understanding of the connotations of these words in French and Spanish?

  • Did "boy" in English always have a negative meaning? (when used to refer to adults)
  • Is there a record of these words gaining/losing their negative connotations?
  • Why is it different between Spanish and French, despite both being Romance languages?

The closest I've come to any answer here is the definition that Merriam-Webster has:

2 - often offensive : a male servant

and my understanding that "garçon" is an outdated way of referring to waiters.

  • 2
    In the US it is certainly offensive to call an adult male African-American "boy". This is because the term was for centuries used by white people to almost literally belittle "colored people".
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 2, 2018 at 13:32
  • 4
    Note that there are three distinct terms here 'boy', 'garçon', 'chico', each with their own cultural history and contexts and sayings. So in some sense there is no possible answer to 'Why are French and Spanish (and English) different?' because you have to start with their being entirely different and justify their being similar. Just saying that 'X translates to Y' is not enough. Another issue is that 'boy' used for an adult may have always been a bad thing, it's just being recognized more consciously and publicly that it is insulting.
    – Mitch
    Dec 2, 2018 at 17:32
  • 2
    Why is it different between Spanish and French? Because they’re different languages. The words are different, too. Just because two languages are related, they don’t have to agree on everything. Jan 2, 2019 at 12:34
  • 1
    Consider: Have you ever heard your grandmother refer to the 60-year-old black man mowing her lawn as "Boy"? I have.
    – Hot Licks
    May 21, 2019 at 0:27
  • 4
    There is, at least in British English, a difference between using the singular and plural terms. Saying "Come on boy!" to an adult human, although not nearly as offensive in the UK as it is in the US, is certainly not very polite and is hardly, if ever said. However "Come on boys!" and similar sentences like "The boys are here to watch the football" are quite common even when the subjects are old men. Havng said that the use of "old boy" or "lad" in this context is hardly ever offensive.
    – BoldBen
    May 21, 2019 at 7:55

5 Answers 5


Early etymology of boy: Wikipedia has:


The word "boy" comes from Middle English boi, boye ("boy, servant"), related to other Germanic words for boy, namely East Frisian boi ("boy, young man") and West Frisian boai ("boy").

Although the exact etymology is obscure, the English and Frisian forms probably derive from an earlier Anglo-Frisian *bō-ja ("little brother"), a diminutive of the Germanic root *bō- ("brother, male relation"), from Proto-Indo-European *bhā-, *bhāt- ("father, brother").

The root is also found in Norwegian dialectal boa ("brother"), and, through a reduplicated variant *bō-bō-, in Old Norse bófi, Dutch boef "(criminal) knave, rogue", German Bube ("knave, rogue, boy"). Furthermore, the word may be related to Bōia, an Anglo-Saxon personal name.

and The Online Etymology Dictionary [re-ordered]

[boy] mid-13c., boie "servant, commoner, knave" (generally young and male); c. 1300, "rascal, ruffian, knave; urchin," mid-14c. as "male child before puberty" (possibly an extended sense from the "urchin" one). A word of unknown origin.

Possibly from Old French embuie "one fettered," from Vulgar Latin *imboiare, from Latin boia "leg iron, yoke, leather collar," from Greek boeiai dorai "ox hides." (Words for "boy" double as "servant, attendant" across the Indo-European map -- compare Italian ragazzo, French garçon, Greek pais, Middle English knave, Old Church Slavonic otroku -- and often it is difficult to say which meaning came first.)

But it also appears to be identical with East Frisian boi "young gentleman," and perhaps with Dutch boef "knave," from Middle Dutch boeve, perhaps from Middle Low German buobe. This suggests a gradational relationship to babe.

In Old English, only the proper name Boia has been recorded. ME boi meant 'churl, servant' and (rarely) 'devil.' In texts, the meaning 'male child' does not antedate 1400. ModE boy looks like a semantic blend of an onomatopoeic word for an evil spirit (*boi) and a baby word for 'brother' (*bo). [Liberman]

For a different conjecture: Used slightingly of young men in Middle English, also in familiar or contemptuous use of criminal toughs or men in the armed services. In some local uses "a man," without reference to age (OED lists "in Cornwall, in Ireland, in the far West of the U.S."). Meaning "male negro slave or Asian personal servant of any age" attested from c. 1600. Extended form boyo is attested from 1870. Emphatic exclamation oh, boy is attested by 1917.)

So, from times not too long after its earliest use in English, 'boy' seems to have carried the unmarked sense (male child / male relation / little brother), as well as the pejorative (urchin / rascal / knave), and even approbatory (young gentleman) associations.

The problems associated with using a term that can both be unmarked, mundane and highly proper, and offensive have been found especially in the United States and South Africa [the same Wikipedia article]:


Historically, in the United States and South Africa, "boy" was not only a "neutral" term for domestics but also a disparaging term towards men of color; the term implied a subservient status.

The article goes on to describe diachronic changes in the perceived degree of offensiveness of the word:

The use of the term "boy" to describe men of color has not always been used as an insult, however; for example, Thomas Branch, an early African-American Seventh-day Adventist missionary to Nyassaland (Malawi) [1900s] referred to the native students as boys:

There is one way by which we judge many of our present boys to be quite different from some of those who were here long ago: those that are married have their wives here with them, and build their own houses, and all are busy making their gardens. I have told all the boys that if they wished to stay here and learn, those that had wives must bring them. This is having a good effect on them. They stay longer, and are more attentive to their work and their studies.

... [2010s] Multiple politicians – including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Kentucky Congressman Geoff Davis – have been criticized publicly for referring to a black man as "boy.

During an event promoting the 2017 boxing bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor, the latter told the former to "dance for me, boy." The remarks led several boxers – including Mayweather and Andre Ward – as well as multiple commentators to accuse McGregor of racism.

This is obviously a complex issue. A Welshman would refer to a mate as 'boyo' in just the same spirit as others would refer to mates as 'lover', 'me old mucker', 'old boy', 'my dear old thing'... and exception could doubtless be taken to all of these. 'Pal' said in a certain way is just as nasty as others. As always, the answer to misuse is not disuse but proper use. And as always, if one does not agree on a final arbiter, deciding on which is which merely rephrases the problem.


I noticed Spanish was not discussed that much in all the comments above. You need to understand that boy is a noun, and the word chico may be used as a noun but comes from an adjective, meaning small in size. If you study Spanish you realize that diminutives -ito, -ita, and anything that is generally talking about smaller size always has positive connotations when used. French is not that different with its use of petit, petite. In fact "Chico" and "Chica" would be like saying "Petit" or "Petite" which French speakers also use. Adjectives and descriptives in Spanish are commonly used in a positive way and not disparaging. Take the words "Gordo" & "Gorda", which mean fat. They are often used as a very sweet endearment or used a nickmane for people. So an adjective such a "Chico" can end up being the nickname of a young person, either because the person is small or because the person is young. However, chico & chica somehow crossed the threshold of being just an endearment or a nickname to becoming a common word to mean people who are not old (teens & young adults). But in essessence, because it comes from an adjective, it holds that positive endearing quality.

The actual noun for boy is Spanish is niño, but it is not used for adult males ever, even in passing, unless you are insulting an adult male for not being mature. Because it is just a noun, it doesn't carry that feeling of endearment at all that chico or chica has. And again, going to French, if you call someone petit or petite it would also be very endearing, and that is something that they both have in common.

So I conclude, using boy or garçon or niño for adult males will not go over very well. However, chico and chica are different because it comes from an adjective and it does not mean boy at all.

  • What if you used 'chico' (in Spanish) for someone who is not in your family and who is not young? Would that be insulting? Or just weird or too familiar? How about for 'niño' or 'muchacho'?
    – Mitch
    Jul 22, 2021 at 15:18

an elderly man might get away with calling a much younger man "my boy" when e.g. discussing something serious, as it suggests he is being fatherly

~ "come on now, my boy; you know better than that" ~

although, even then the younger man might take offence (if, for example, he believes the older man is using age to 'win' an arguement)...

I imagine adults have always been offended by those who treat them as children (/ as unworldly / as ignorant / as stupid) but simply didn't always have the right to speak up for themselves

~ in a small community where elders are revered by all, they would have been condemned for disagreeing with an older person, or with anyone deemed to have "status"... human rights have helped reduce such inequalities.

so, the only things you might 'gain' from calling someone "boy" these days are a scowl, a cuss, or a punch in the face...because chances are the person you're insulting knows that's what you're doing & has the power to retaliate. Provoke at your peril!

  • "I imagine adults have always been offended by those who treat them as children" The original meaning of "boy" referred to either a "A male servant, slave, assistant, junior employee, etc." or a "male person of low birth or status" (OED). As such, your answer doesn't really make sense.
    – Laurel
    May 21, 2019 at 0:50
  • Elderly man? How about middle-aged and a 13 yr old?
    – Lambie
    Jul 22, 2021 at 14:21

"garçon" is a neutral word nowadays. But, if we look at the history of this word, we observe that it had a connotation pejorative. If we go back even more, this word was not connoted. But, "garce", the feminine word of "garçon" is still pejorative.

Source: https://www.lexilogos.com/document/littre.php?q=Garce

On the whole, it seems that words referring to child(ren) are regularly associated with a connotation pejorative or had a connotation pejorative. Another example is the word "gosse" that is neutral in France, but in Quebec means testicle. The words "mioche" and "bambin" have also a derogative sense.

In Riffian, some argue (kossmann 2013) that the word "ahram", meaning "boy", is borrowed to the arabic word "haram" (= sin).

  • 2
    I accept that garçon is a neutral word when applied to a youth, but is it really not pejorative when applied to an adult?
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 28, 2018 at 23:27
  • In this case, you don't speak about connotation, because it is not a concept related to social categories variation. If "garçon" is perceived as pejorative, or ameliorative, by an adult or a woman not belonging to this category, so, that will depend of his relationship with the person saying this word. We are more in the case of the anathema where a word, connoted or not, can serve to cause injury to someone.
    – amegnunsen
    Nov 29, 2018 at 9:24
  • 1
    I'm sorry, amegnunsen, I've read your reply to my comment twice, and I can't work out what you're saying. My impression is that referring to an adult male as "un garçon" would be rude (though I wouldn't be surprised if it could be used between friends in some circles, like other rude terms). I may be wrong.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 30, 2018 at 0:31
  • Yes, you are right, in the same way if this word is said to a girl/woman. Using a word outside of his application domain can hurt some. It is not exclusive to boy. It is what I want to say.
    – amegnunsen
    Nov 30, 2018 at 21:20
  • The translation of: You'd better finish your homework, boy! Is not garçon in French!! And gosse is a little kid (maybe up to ten). Saying garçon is a neutral word is not saying much in the context of this question. It is, in fact, irrelevant.
    – Lambie
    Jul 22, 2021 at 14:22

For example:

If you were a parent and were to say "come here boy" to your kid instead of "come here Joey" (if Joey is the boy's name) and didn't call your child by their name, it would be referring to them in the third person instead of their name, it would be like saying to your mum, "hey woman come here" or to your dad, "hey man come here", or even for example your dog has the name "kyle" and you call out "hey dog", it won't pay attention to you because it would believe you are talking to or about someone else named "dog".

The answer is, in society it would be socially "strange" to call someone boy if they knew them personally, but if you don't know the "boy" or "girl" or "person" you can call them as such.

  • 1
    I think you've missed the main point. "Come over here, man" while not being particularly polite, it is not as derogatory or belittling as calling a male adult "boy".
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 21, 2019 at 7:20
  • 3
    This doesn't make a lot of sense, other than the obvious statement that it's polite to use a person's name if known. It's also highly contentious to say that if you don't know their name, it's ok to call them "boy", and it's ridiculous to say you can address them as "person". Please provide authoritative evidence to back up these claims. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the Tour. :-) May 21, 2019 at 7:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.