I was reading a review of the play “Silent Sky,” about female astronomers at Harvard University in the early 20th century, when I came across a word that made me feel a little bit like Obi-wan Kenobi: “Now that’s a word I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time.” It was “hoydenish.” The word was used because one of the characters is described as “bring[ing] a hoydenish irreverence to the workroom.”
Hoydenish is an appropriate word for the play’s time period, as it had its heyday from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. It has mostly outlived its usefulness today, however.
The word was used to criticize certain sorts of behavior that were once thought objectionable in women but today attract little or no disapproval. A hoyden is a “rude, or ill-bred girl; a boisterous noisy girl,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Nowadays, a “boisterous girl” sounds like a fun person to have around at a party, not a worthy target of rebuke.
Rudeness is of course still frowned upon, and sometimes hoydens behaved in ways that are rude by today’s standards – a girl who pushed another out of her seat at school was a hoyden in 1865.
But more often they were tomboys – girls who climbed trees, went barefoot, and spoke their minds freely. They did not conform to the strict rules of Victorian womanhood, with its demands for delicacy, self-control, and deference.
So in 1866 we get a Miss Harcourt who “although arrived at the sedate age of sixteen … retained much of the hoydenish, brusque manners for which, alas! she had ever been famed since she could use her feet at all.”
In 1894, older girls were described as “having outgrown the hoydenish period. They are graceful and pretty and well-dressed....” The poem “Holidays,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, illustrates this opposition: “Whither went the lovely hoyden?/ Disappeared in blessed wife.”
It is hard even to imagine hoyden as a meaningful term of reproach and criticism today. Why shouldn’t girls climb trees? What’s wrong with women laughing loudly and saying what they think?
And why should a person be obliged to give up that fun and freedom when she ages or if she marries?
That we view such behaviors so differently today is pleasant, if perhaps minor, evidence of positive social change. The word has lost its charge, and in this case that is a good thing. The astronomers of “Silent Sky” – who spoke their minds, joked loudly with male colleagues, and did scientific work no one expected them to be able to do – were in the hoydenish vanguard.