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?

My closest guess is the definition that Merriam-Webster has:

2 - often offensive : a male servant

and "garçon" is an outdated way of referring to waiters.

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    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 '18 at 13:32
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    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 '18 at 17:32
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    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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 2 at 12:34
  • 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 at 0:27
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    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 at 7:55

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 at 0:50

"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).

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    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 '18 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 '18 at 9:24
  • 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 '18 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 '18 at 21:20

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 at 7:20
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    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. :-) – Chappo May 21 at 7:20

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