Is there a male equivalent of "damsel" ?
noun archaic or literary
a young unmarried woman.
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I think the male counterpart would be bachelor. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the "Meaning evolved from "knight in training" to "young unmarried man" (early 14c.)"
Note that in modern English the word bachelor can still refer to an unmarried man (although not necessarily a young one).
It's amusing to note that, according to Wordnik, damsel also applies to a young gentleman:
damsel: A titular designation of a young gentleman; a young man of gentle or noble birth: as, damsel Pepin; damsel Richard, Prince of Wales.
Even when damsel wasn't an archaic term, young gentleman was the best equivalent, as in the title of the Thomas Rowlandson painting "A college green with a group of damsels and young gentlemen in the foreground, c.1810-15."
A damsel implies a young lady of noble birth or a maiden. The word comes from the French Damoiselle (not in use nowadays, it has a strong Middle-Ages flavour).
The male equivalent of a damoiselle in French is damoiseau. And damoiseau has an entry in both the OED and wiktionary.
Quoting the OED :
Damoiseau : [a. OF. damoiseau the masculine corresp. to damoisel, damsel.] A young man of gentle birth, not yet made a knight. (Occurring in 15th c. translations from French, and in modern archaists.)
If we do not want to use damoiseau in English, the nearest male equivalent seems the lad indeed, the word lad sounding (at least to me) slightly outdated. Lass (feminine of lad) is also given by the OED as a synonym of damsel.
@prash : Damsel doesn't imply that the young lady is in distress. Unless specified to be in distress, of course ! A damsel in distress is a literary theme that goes way back into Antiquity and revived in the middle-ages.
I'd go with lad because it seems to be used in similar kinds of discourse. The trouble is that "a lad in distress" sounds like "Aladdin distress".
I would say gentle-man is the masculin equivalent of damsel, because it implies the idea of chevalry, of noble intentions, that goes well with the Middle Ages code of honor. Damsels are in distress and gentlemen are there to save them. Besides, gentlemen also refers to the noble origin, when damsel implies the idea of virginity and innocence.
Wight is a near-equivalent, going by the dictionary. The problem is that damsel has heavy connotations of pretty but useless, and (obviously) there are no men who could be described so.
Edit: the word is Anglo-Saxon, and since man means pretty much the same, wight was never very common. Chambers defines it as "man (archaic or dialect): supernatural being (obs)", the only use I can think of that is not for self-conscious effect (or sub-Tolkien) is Hardy's 'In Time of the Breaking of Nations': "a maid and her wight/ come whispering by".
Damsel came from a diminutive of Lat. dominus, "lord, head of the house", and hence meant a younger male or female of noble birth.
Although archaic, the 1913 Webster's lists the following examples of its use for young males:
Damsel Pepin; Damsel Richard, Prince of Wales.
But its modern use has been narrowed to an exclusively female designation. Perhaps, considering its etymology and looking for a cognate for males, I might suggest a creative use of the word "don".
Don in distress could thus have an interesting effect on the reader, which, as a writer, you could employ under poetic license.
1520s, from Spanish or Portuguese don, title of respect, from Latin dominus "lord, master." The university sense is c. 1660, originally student slang; underworld sense is 1952, from Italian don, from Late Latin domnus, from Latin dominus. The fem. form is Dona (Spanish/Portuguese), Donna (Italian).