This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Commenting on it, P D James wrote of Lydia Bennet that “Seen through the eyes of her sister, Elizabeth, she appears to be a vulgar, lusty hoyden.”
Though it’s still to be found, hoyden is a word that feels better suited to Austen’s time than the modern world. These days, we do not regard boisterous or tomboyish girls as a disgrace to their sex, though if we are forced into close association we may wish for a quieter life. Jane Austen would have been much less kind, because for her hoyden had a stronger sense of being ill-bred and rude. She doesn’t call the frivolous and headstrong Lydia a hoyden — she never uses the word in any of her writings — but she does say that Lydia has “high animal spirits”, which closely matches the modern sense.
Hoyden is a curiosity because it once referred exclusively to men. We may now look indulgently on hoydenish young women but male hoydens were considered to be rude, ignorant, awkward or boorish. In 1593, Thomas Nashe (its first recorded user) wrote disparagingly of the hoydens of Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge. Its members were exclusively male at the time, as they continued to be until 1977, when the college admitted its first female undergraduates.
The writers of Restoration comedies provoked the gender change. A character named Mrs Hoyden appeared in William Wycherley’s play Plain-Dealer in 1676. But the shift was principally the result of Sir John Vanbrugh’s comedy of 1696, The Relapse or Virtue in Danger. This includes a female character named Hoyden, the daughter of Sir Tunbelly Clumsey, who manages to marry two men on the same day. The play was much criticised and the controversy seems to have fixed in people’s minds that hoydens could be female. In 1698, Jeremy Collier singled out The Relapse in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage as a principal offender against morality and the character of Hoyden in particular as dangerous to the proper moral training of the nation’s youth.
The other oddity is that hoyden is a close relative of heathen, which is much older. Its roots lie in very early Germanic dialects and is related to heath. Heathens were literally heath-dwellers, inhabitants of open country, uncivilised and in particular unacquainted with Christianity. Hoyden is thought to have been borrowed from heiden, the Dutch equivalent of heathen from the same ancient Germanic source.