Although it’s given all-caps styling in the title, FBOY Island, HBOMax’s first foray into reality TV, is not an initialism. Rather, it’s an abbreviation of, and a euphemism for, fuckboy. It’s an oddly diffident elision when you consider that HBO has been gleefully detonating F-bombs for a couple of decades.
I’ll get to the story behind the coyness—and to the history of fuckboy—in a bit. First, though, an introduction to the series, whose first three episodes premiered on July 29 and which will continue through August 12.
Yep, it’s another “dating” show—the title nods to Love Island, Paradise Island, and, for all of us 30 Rock fans, the wholly fictional and hilarious MILF Island—with a familiar setup. Three young women who have slightly different skin tones but are otherwise hard to tell apart (size 00, hair extensions, false eyelashes) are transported to a magnificent villa on a tropical island (not identified, but it’s Grand Cayman, and the villa costs $5,198 a night). So are 24 young men who appear to have spent vast amounts of time at the gym and the barber shop, and whose occupations include “bitcoin investor,” “CBD entrepreneur,” “TikToker,” “club promoter,” “talent agent,” “child care-slash-influencer,” and “exotic dancer-slash-realtor.”
There are twists. Twist #1: Twelve of the men are self-proclaimed “nice guys”; the others are self-proclaimed “fboys,” pronounced eff-boys, in it for the $100,000 cash prize and not l’amour. Twist #2: The fellows’ true motives have been withheld from the “girls” and from one another; only through the inevitable elimination process will they discover who’s an NG and who’s an FB. The show’s sassy host, comedian Nikki Glaser, dismisses each outed cad with a tart, “F-boy, f-bye.”
A third twist: While there are plenty of shits and fucks in the three hour-long episodes I’ve watched, everyone in the cast, with one exception, dutifully perpetuates the “fboy” euphemism. The exception is Charley, a French fitness trainer from Los Angeles, who laments, late in Episode 2, “I’m not a fuckboy!” Whoops.
The series concept creator, Elan Gale, told Vanity Fair’s Whitney Friedlander that he pitched the show as Fuckboy Island, not FBOY Island. Friedlander notes that
Player Island and Jerk Island just don’t have the same punch, nor do they sound as relevant to the modern dating vernacular. But using a curse word in a title still drastically limits the options for who will buy a pitch and how it can be promoted.
“Having the word fuck in your title…you’re not going to get that billboard you want,” Gale says.
(Read the rest of the Vanity Fair article for additional Strong Language–centric content about titles like P-Valley and Kevin Can F**k Himself—all orthography sic.)
Fuckboy, sometimes spelled fuckboi, is not a new coinage. In the 2009 edition of The F-Word, Jesse Sheidlower defines it as a “catamite”—a boy kept for homosexual purposes—and hence “a man who is victimized.” He includes a 1954 citation for a similar term: “the army’s using him for a screw-boy.” Fuckboy was prison slang from the 1950s on; Nixon henchman G. Gordon Liddy, who served 52 months for conspiracy and wiretapping, wrote in his 1980 memoir Will that in prison, cartons of cigarettes could buy a “fuck boy” for “homosexual gratification.”
By the 1990s, fuckboy was losing its homosexual connotations but keeping its sense of victimhood. A 1996 Vanity Fair story about late-night TV hosts cited David Letterman’s “legendary” bouts of self-criticism: “He has called himself ‘fuck boy’ and ‘snot boy,’ among other epithets, after shows he thinks have gone badly, and dissects his performances without anesthetic.” And in 2000 it was showing up as fuckboi, a general insult, as in this Usenet post: “Uh, fuckboi, check the posts.” (My thanks to “Among the New Words” in American Speech, February 2016, and to Ben Zimmer for supplying the link.)
In other words, Dictionary.com’s assertion that “the earliest use of fuckboy was in the 2002 song ‘Boy Boy’ by rapper Cam’ron” is off by almost half a century. Cam’ron—born Cameron Ezike Giles, in Harlem—used fuckboy in David Letterman’s self-deprecatory sense: “a guy who is a weak loser, who sucks, who isn’t conventionally masculine,” as Dictionary.com puts it. Other songs—including 2004’s “99 Problemz”—also used fuckboy in this sense.
Through Urban Dictionary entries we can trace fuckboy’s further evolution. A two-part 2003 entry still has “prison bitch” but also “a disposable fuck buddy, male, usually passive.” December 2004: “a person who is a weak-ass pussy that ain’t bout shit.” April 2008 (spelled fuck boi): “another word for motherfucker/this word could be a positive or negative.” By 2013, fuckboi could mean, roughly, “asshole,” as in this headline in the Miami New Times: “Diplo Calls Flo Rida a ‘Fuckboi,’ Accuses Rapper of Stealing Misogynist Video Concept.”
Meanwhile, fuccboi—same pronunciation, distinct spelling—was acquiring a separate and highly specific meaning in the world of street fashion. As Jezebel writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd defined him in 2014, a fuccboi was “a streetwear trend-humper who pairs items like Hood by Air logo tees with dropcrotch shorts over leather leggings and tops it off with a sheen of Rick Owens, figuratively more than literally.” The effect, she wrote, was “a certain blend of awkwardness and thirst, combined with lots of disposable income (HBA t-shirts run around $200 on average) that translates into a need to be associated with the culture it inhabits, while perhaps not actually being of said culture.” There was, briefly, a Fuccboi of the Day Tumblr, with the tagline “Money doesn’t buy style.”
Fuckboy’s fortunes shifted again in 2014. That was the year that linguist Jack Grieve identified fuckboy as the top rising word on Twitter. Grieve also recorded a definition shift: it now could mean asshole, jerk, poser, tool, etc.
We included fuckboy in our very popular July 2015 post about Grieve’s United States swear maps. (Scroll down to find it; they’re in alphabetical order.)
From there it was a short semantic hop to fuckboy as player, Lothario, and—to use another quaint term—bounder. In a much-talked-about story about hookup culture published in the September 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, Nancy Jo Sales defined fuckboy as
a young man who sleeps with women without any intention of having a relationship with them or perhaps even walking them to the door post-sex. He’s a womanizer, an especially callous one, as well as kind of a loser. The word has been around for at least a decade with different meanings; it’s only in about the last year that it has become so frequently used by women and girls to refer to their hookups.
“What percentage of boys now do you think are fuckboys?,” I asked some young women from New Albany, Indiana.
“One hundred percent,” said Meredith, 20, a sophomore at Bellarmine University in Louisville.
New Albany, Indiana! Louisville, Kentucky! Fuckboy had reached the white-bread heartland.
But Sales’s article, and in particular her definition of fuckboy, drew quick criticism. In Jezebel, Kara Brown insisted that the earlier, “lame, bitch-ass” meaning of the word was the only correct one, arguing that white people shouldn’t change the sense of a word “first introduced publicly by the rapper Cam’ron” (not true) after it had been “floating around in Harlem” (probably true, but not only there). In Pacific Standard, Alana Massey wrote that Sales’s definition was incomplete and inaccurate: “Fuckboys are not always young, and there are plenty of fuckboys in long-term romantic relationships. Fuckboy is not a dating style so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort.”
Then there was “What Is the Fuckboy?”, by Jacob Brogan, published in Slate’s Lexicon Valley in August 2015. Brogan connected fuckboy’s sudden spike to the late-2014 release of Run the Jewels’ “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” in which Killer Mike raps, “That fuckboy life about to be repealed/ That fuckboy shit about to be repelled/ Fuckboy jihad, kill infidels.” Repeated without context, fuckboy becomes “a semiotic black hole, Brogan wrote, one that pulls everything into itself.” Popular media abhors a black hole, and so there were listicles to fill it: “15 Tragic Signs You’re Dealing With a Fuckboy,” “10 Signs He’s a Fuckboy,” “7 SIGNS HE’S A FUCKBOY.”
After all that, it was hardly surprising that the American Dialect Society voted fuckboy Most Outrageous word of the year for 2015. And perhaps it’s also no surprise that fuckboy made its way into several non-English languages, including Swedish. In 2019, the German electronic/dance group Neptunica released a single titled “Fuckboy,” sung in English by a woman. The lyrics make it clear that this fuckboy is a cocksman: “Don’t call me your lover/Yeah I know you’ll disappear/I want a forever/Not just fun for one-two years/You’re such a fuckboy/Fuckbo-oy/Oh my god you’re such a/Fuckboy/Fuckbo-oy.”
Where there’s a pejorative, sooner or later there will be someone, or some company, making a stab at reclaiming it.
Is there something about the [X] boy formula that makes it both so shady and so irresistibly useful? Compare rent boy (a young male prostitute; “chiefly British,” according to Merriam-Webster, but thoroughly Americanized, as this 2010 New York Times headline demonstrates); or soy boy (an alt-right epithet circa 2018); or even (sigh) Nancy boy.
As for the new boy on the block, FBOY Island may represent the final stage of fuckboy’s varied career. The show’s creator doesn’t love it, but “fboy” serves a purpose: it’s short, it’s safe, it’s brandable and hashtaggable. From prison to premium cable, from barely utterable to nearly domesticated, this bad boy is a keeper. Anyone who says otherwise can just eff off.