Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tomboy and the Opposite Sex

Adventures in time and space. 

I. The Opposite Sex.

While transcribing handwritten American correspondence from about 150 years ago, I've been impressed by the durability and flexibility of language. It astonishes me how many expressions and bits of phrases we still employ, or put the other way around, that people were already using expressions and bits of phrases from today 150 years ago. 

I happened to come across the expression "the opposite sex" twice in one day, first while reading a Washington Irving piece from The Alhambra : A Series of Tales and Sketches of the Moors and Spaniards (1832), second while reading from an 1867 letter.

Thanks to digitization of texts, we can delve into the origins of things like phrases, words and ideas, with pretty good accuracy, or at least we'll be able to uncover suggestive indicators of semiotic origins. 

Using the advanced features of Google Books search, patterns of the use in text of "the opposite sex" become noticeable for the years of the late 1700s; while in using Google Books Ngram Viewer, one can see spikes in its use in 1977 and 1997. 

But "Sir wants more." The oldest text I can find, in English, using the term "the opposite sex" is from a book about Ancient Rome first published in 1695:

It's very observable that the Common Courtezans were not allow'd to appear in the Stola, but obliged to wear a sort of Gown, as a Mark of Infamy, by reason of its Resemblance to the Habit of the opposite sex. Hence in the place of Horace . . . The most judicious Dacier understands by Togata the Common Strumpet, in opposition both to the Matron and the Serving-Maid. 

Basil Kennet (1674-1715), Romae Antiquae NotitiaOr The Antiquities of Rome. In Two Parts. 1. A Short History of the Rise, Progress, and Decay of the Common-wealth. 2. A Description of the City. ... With Copper Cuts of the Principal Buildings, &c. To which are Prefix'd Two Essays: Concerning the Roman Learning, and the Roman Education (A. Swall and T. Child, at the Unicorn, at the West-End of St. Paul's Chuch-yard, 1695), page. 311. 

II. Tomboy

It would seem that the oldest known English usage of the term "tomboy" was in the mid-1500s, specifically from the comic play Ralph Roister Doister written by Nicholas Uvedale aka Udall (1504-1556) and published in 1567.

From Act II: Scene 4.

Custance (a man) to Talkapace (a woman):

Is all your delight and joy
In whisking and ramping abroad,
like a Tom-boy?  

III. Snippet from an 1867 letter

And here, both "tomboy" and "the opposite sex" are combined into one sentence.

"On my way home from the horse cars I passed three little gipsies, unnoticing and unnoticed, who, on a second look, turned out to be my own children.

My daughter Alba is much grown and does not wear a chignon; her sister Dora, should have been her brother, for she is a very tomboy and infringes considerably on the privilege of the opposite sex to be ugly; Avery, the older boy, is much like others of his species. I subscribe, of course, to all that is said of the baby, the sweetest, the most beautiful &c. The children are all delightfully weather stained by the sea-breezes. I found my wife better than I expected to find her."

Joseph Wall at Savin Hill, Boston, to Mrs. Binckley, September 17, 1867, in John Milton Binckley Papers, Library of Congress. 

Can you recall about when you first heard these terms?  And, do you or people you know still use them?  I certainly remember both "the opposite sex" and "tomboy" being used from growing up as a kid onward, and now looking backward.   

Today's Rune: Harvest. 

1 comment:

t said...

Tomboy, with a Nigerian/Yoruba accent (re-MI). I was very young when I first heard that one. e.g. You dis tom-BOYI.
The opposite sess? usually rising at the end too, like a question. Probably from "moral instruction" talks in school. e.g. "When you interat wi' d opposite sess..."