A short history of lads in (British) English

Back when universities were still teaching face-to-face, the Times Higher reported on a research project which found that on some courses lecturing had been abandoned because of the ‘laddish’ behaviour of certain students, who disrupted the proceedings by heckling and interrupting. I found I had some questions about this. One was why universities were dealing with this problem by changing their teaching methods, rather than warning the offenders that if they persisted they’d be kicked out. Another, however, was about the language we use to discuss this kind of behaviour.

The Higher called it ‘laddish’, as did the researchers whose work was being reported. In Britain, the word ‘lad’ and its derivatives (e.g. ‘laddish’, ‘laddism’ and ‘lad culture’) are now well-established labels for what a 2012 report on sexual violence in universities described as ‘a group or “pack” mentality’ among young men, expressed in practices like heavy alcohol consumption and our old friend ‘banter’ (much of it, according to the report, sexist, misogynist and homophobic). But are these ‘lad’ terms helpful from a feminist point of view? Where do they come from and what do they imply?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the English noun ‘lad’ has been in use since the 14th century. Originally it had two main senses: the first, now obsolete, was ‘serving man or attendant, man of low birth’, while the second was ‘boy, youth, young man’. In some regional varieties of English (and Scots) ‘lad’ is still a straightforward synonym for ‘boy/young man’. But in the standard language it’s now more commonly used in another way: ‘familiarly’, to or about a male of any age, as either a term of endearment or a marker of solidarity among men who share ‘common working, recreational, or other interests’.

This non-age-specific usage is something ‘lad’ has in common with ‘girl’. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the argument that calling an adult woman a girl automatically demeans her by reducing her to the status of a child doesn’t work for all cases and contexts. ‘Girl’ can certainly be demeaning when it’s used by a person of higher status (e.g. by a boss about his secretary or a mistress about her servant), but among equals what it expresses is solidarity or camaraderie. It can also be a way of metaphorically attributing the positive qualities we associate with youth–like being carefree, fun-loving and sexually attractive–to someone who isn’t literally young. No doubt that reflects our culture’s ageism, but it isn’t necessarily an insult.

‘Lad’ works in a similar way. The plural form ‘lads’ most often appears in contexts where the emphasis is on solidarity and male bonding: ‘the lads’ may refer to the male friends a man goes out drinking with, the teammates he plays sport with, or—as the OED’s 20th century examples reminded me—his brothers in a union where the trade is working-class and male (‘I’ll have to take this offer back to the lads’). Like ‘girls’, ‘lads’ also turns up in expressions like ‘a night out with the ___’, where the implication is that those involved are temporarily putting adult cares aside and recapturing the pleasures of youth.

But there are also some differences between ‘lad’ and ‘girl’, reflecting the differing norms of masculinity and femininity. One of the senses listed for ‘lad’ in the OED is ‘a man of spirit and vigour’, as in ‘Jack the lad’ and ‘a bit of a lad’. These idioms suggest a general propensity for mischief or bad behaviour, but they can also take on a more specifically sexual meaning. One of the OED’s examples, from a text published in 1960, is ‘A bit of a lad, Mr Alan Clark, going around fancy-free for years’.

If you’re thinking, ‘but don’t girls also misbehave, sexually and otherwise?’, the short answer is yes, of course–but that isn’t part of the meaning of the word ‘girl’, nor indeed of ‘lass’, the female-specific term that directly parallels ‘lad’: we wouldn’t refer to a woman as ‘Jill the lass’ or ‘a bit of a lass’. So what do we call women who behave like ‘Jack’? Historically, they have also been ‘lads’: the OED notes that in the past ‘lad’ was sometimes used to mean ‘a spirited girl’ (the example it offers is dated 1935). More recently, young women who engage in ‘laddish’ behaviour–being loud and disruptive, getting drunk and having sex–have been referred to, belittlingly, as ‘ladettes’. This language suggests that female lad(ette)s are seen as gender-deviant: they’re assumed to be aping the boys rather than expressing their own authentic ‘spirit’.

The ‘lad’ of ‘lad culture’ is clearly a descendant of the ‘man of spirit and vigour’, and in 2001 the OED acknowledged this development by adding a new draft section to the ‘lad’ entry. In contemporary British usage, it explains, a ‘lad’ is

a young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented, his engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behaviour regarded as irresponsible, sexist, or boorish; (usually) one belonging to a close-knit social group’.

The first illustrative example for this sense comes from a 1986 article in The Face by Julie Burchill:

Remarried after more than a decade on the rampage, at 47 in true Lad style to a girl of 22.

The capitalization of ‘Lad’ here suggests that Burchill is referencing what she regards as a recognisable social type. It’s that type which the section is concerned with–though the  reference to ‘a young man’ does not acknowledge what the example clearly implies, that the Lad is defined less by his age in and of itself than by his attitudes and behaviour. In Burchill’s terms 55-year old Boris Johnson, with his long string of well-publicised affairs and his famously indeterminate number of children, would surely count as a Lad.

Johnson was also what we might now describe as a lad when he was young: at university in the early 1980s he belonged to the hard-drinking, restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club. But as boorish and irresponsible as their behaviour undoubtedly was, it was not yet described as ‘laddish’. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the ‘lad’—or as he was sometimes called at the time, the ‘New Lad’–became a familiar cultural figure, his laddish enthusiasms both codified and celebrated in a clutch of popular ‘lad mags’ like Loaded and FHM.

What, you might wonder, was ‘new’ about the New Lad? In many ways he wasn’t new at all: he was an amalgam of all the earlier ‘lads’, simultaneously engaged in male homosocial bonding, disruptive mischief-making and aggressive heterosexuality. Some high-profile New Lads were middle-class men adopting a working-class style of masculinity (their sport was football, their drink was beer), but that wasn’t unprecedented either. The real point of the ‘new’ label was to contrast the emerging ‘New Lad’ with the already-established ‘New Man’, who was ‘sensitive, charming, considerate…he’d do the housework and not be afraid to shed a tear’. After a decade when pop culture had been dominated by foppish New Romantics and androgynous synthpop types, the ‘New Lad’ represented the return of the repressed: he gave men permission to be men again.

‘New lads’ were uninterested in feminism, but to begin with, at least, they were keen not to come across as unreconstructed misogynists. The message of Loaded, according to one of its founders, was

Don’t take us too seriously, we’re blokes and we’re useless. . .We like football, but that doesn’t mean we’re hooligans. . .We like looking at pictures of fancy ladies sometimes but that doesn’t mean we want to rape them.

Feminists were not impressed, however, and there was also concern in other quarters. The examples illustrating ‘lad culture’ in the OED show that by the end of the 1990s it was widely regarded as a problem. This quote, for instance, is taken from the Glasgow Herald:

Boys seem to have an extreme amount of pressure on them and it’s very hard for them to resist the lad culture.

What prompted this anxiety wasn’t the sexism of lad culture, but rather the contribution it was thought to be making to the much-discussed problem of boys’ academic underachievement. Research confirmed that one of the hallmarks of laddism among school-age boys was the belief that studying was uncool. No one wanted to be what Boris Johnson once called his slightly less laddish contemporary David Cameron–a ‘girly swot’. The worry was that lad culture was leading boys—especially the middle-class white boys who had embraced it so enthusiastically—to neglect their schoolwork and undermine their future prospects.

In hindsight this anxiety seems misplaced: far from ending up unemployed, the lads of the 1980s and 1990s have become the new Establishment. Whether they’re posh Tory boys like Boris Johnson and Toby Young, or leftists like Owen Jones (and yes, I know he’s gay, but he’s also a classic lad), they are well-represented among Britain’s most powerful and influential people. And it’s not just at the top that laddism rules. The lad mags are long gone, but the culture they promoted lives on. The current pandemic has given us countless examples of irresponsible, boorish and sexist male behaviour, whether it’s students ‘zoombombing’ online classes with offensive messages and/or pornography (which is generally having, as the Economist put it, ‘a good pandemic’), ‘covidiots’ flouting lockdown rules (in Britain 80% of those fined for this have been men, the majority young), or middle-aged professional men expressing outrage because they’ve been told to wear a mask or expected to look after their own children.

Of course this has not gone uncriticised. Nor has the sexual harassment and sexual violence associated with lad culture in educational settings. The effect of ‘lad’ masculinity on women students gets far more attention today than it did in the 1990s. But I do sometimes wonder if the vocabulary of ‘laddism’ does feminists any favours.

As this blog has pointed out before, words carry baggage from their history of being used. ‘Lad’ is arguably a case where that historical baggage is largely positive, and thus in tension with the feminist analysis of ‘laddism’ as a serious problem. The ‘lad’ has long been associated with youthful exuberance, vigour, rebelliousness, hedonism and humour–qualities which many people find attractive, and whose less appealing manifestations they are willing to shrug off as ‘only natural’. Familiar excuses for irresponsible, boorish and sexist behaviour—‘boys will be boys’, ‘it’s just banter’, ‘we’re blokes and we’re useless’—are more or less baked into the discourse. (See also: ‘classic Dom’, and ‘it’s just Boris being Boris’.)

What words could we use instead? For some forms of ‘laddish’ behaviour (like disrupting lectures, or partying in large groups in the middle of a pandemic) I’d be happier with a term like ‘anti-social’; for ‘lad culture’ I’m tempted to suggest substituting ‘toxic masculinity’. (For the Boris Johnson/Toby Young variant there’s also ‘posh boy misogyny’, but not all misogynists are posh.) It’s not that I think this language would have a deterrent effect (a true ‘lad’ would presumably delight in the disapproval of feminist killjoys); but it would send the message that no, we don’t think this is harmless, or funny, or something we must put up with because that’s just the way men are.

Of course it could be argued that changing culture is more important than changing labels, and that efforts to change culture have to start from where people are. That’s the view of the Good Lad Initiative, which works with men and boys to rethink ideas about manhood. They want to reclaim the ‘lad’, not demonise him. But while ‘lad’—like ‘girl’–has some uses which I agree are innocuous, there might still be a case for calling ‘lad culture’ or ‘laddism’ by a name that doesn’t trivialise it or make excuses for it.

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