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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 *b?-ja ("little brother"), a diminutive of the Germanic root *b?- ("brother, male relation"), from Proto-Indo-European *bh?-, *bh?t- ("father, brother"). The root is also found in Norwegian dialectal boa ("brother"), and, through a reduplicated variant *b?-b?-, in Old Norse bófi, Dutch boef "(criminal) knave, rogue", German Bube ("knave, rogue, boy"). Furthermore, the word may be related to B?ia, an Anglo-Saxon personal name.
Ongoing debates about the influences of nature versus nurture in shaping the behavior of girls and boys raises questions about whether the roles played by boys are mainly the result of inborn differences or of socialization. Images of boys in art, literature and popular culture often demonstrate assumptions about gender roles. In some Middle Eastern cultures, characteristics affirming boyhood include physiological features associated with prepubescence, such as pubelessness and the inability to ejaculate. An adult male human is a man, but when age is not a crucial factor, both terms can be interchangeable, e.g., 'boys and their toys' applies equally to adults and young boys, just as 'Are you mice or men?' can also apply to young boys.
The age boundary is not clear cut, rather dependent on the context or even on individual circumstances. A young man who has not assumed (or has been denied) the traditional roles of a man might also be called a boy. It may feel uncomfortable to a young male upon being referred to as a "man" before he believes he has assumed these roles, such as having a career, a partner, a household of his own, fatherhood, etc., though the addition of a jocular modifier such as "young man" or "little man" might lessen the dissonance. Conversely, it may feel uncomfortable to a male to be called a "boy" if he believes he has assumed the traditional roles of a "man". In mother's/mama's boy, the word emphatically implies a male (minor or adult in years) who is too immature to be independent.
In some traditions boyhood is held to be exchanged for adult manhood, or at least approach it significantly, by certain independent acts assuming a role deemed to be typical for a "normal" man (though there are limits) as marriage, fathering offspring or military service. Various cultural and/or religious rites of passage serve, partially or specifically, to mark the transition to manhood.
There are often a number of traditional differences in attire between boys and adult men, which may even give rise to specific terms or to what is socially accepted as appropriate behaviour. For example: terms such as "unbreeched" which was used to designate young boys who hadn't yet moved on to trousers from the gowns or dresses used by infants.[clarification needed] or social customs such as boys may be publicly seen naked in cultures where men are not.
Some boys defy traditional gender expectations. Gender-expansive[a] and transgender boys can face bullying and pressure to conform to traditional expectations.[page needed] Some intersex children and some transgender children who were assigned female at birth may self-identify as boys.
The following subsections treat some specific contexts where the term boy is frequently used, as such or in compound terms, often 'emancipated' from the age notion as such.
Historically, in the US and South Africa, "boy" was not only a "neutral" term for domestics but also as a disparaging term towards men of color, implying their subservient status. The usage ran from the period of slavery through segregation and apartheid, though it became less acceptable and decreased as time passed.
The use of the term "boy" has not always been used as an insult. As an example, Thomas Branch, an early African-American Seventh-day Adventist missionary to Nyassaland (Malawi) 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.
During an event promoting the boxing bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor, the latter told to 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.
Many mythological boys have frequently been represented in various arts, e.g. Venus' often mischievous son Cupid, himself a young god of love which he 'inflicts' on humans by shooting his arrows; in some style periods even multiplied as naked little boys called putti.
In portrait art, and generally in commissioned work (including funeral art), the subjects are usually determined by the wishes of the (adult) client, so minors are often in the minority, yet in wealthy families especially heirs are (re)presented as part of their social positioning in view of future marriage and succession, generally either as mini-adults or stereotypical youth, e.g. at play or in cozy home scenes.
Some artists displayed a clear predeliction for scenes with boys, in certain cases (especially if frequently depicting revealing poses) believed to have to do with a homo-erotic taste, as is believed of the highly respected Old Master Caravaggio, or Henry Scott Tuke who kept producing such works even though the market circa 1900 was rather unappreciative.
In music, boys' voices, before they 'break' being of a soprano register (specifically known as treble) unlike adult men (in a choir usually tenor and bass), have been most sought-after, especially where female voices were considered inappropriate as often in church and certain theatrical music - this even led to the practice of physically trying to prevent their 'angelical' voices ever to break by surgically cutting short the hormonal drive to manhood: for centuries, castrato singers, who coupled adult strength and experience with a treble register, starred in contratenor parts, mainly in operatic styles.