The term "choirboy" (replacing in popular use the earlier "singing boy") seems to have been coined by the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) in chapter vii of his story The Ravenswing, published in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country (London, Sept. 1843, XXVIII/165, p. 321): "He had been a choir-boy at Windsor".
In more recent years as girls have begun joining formerly all-male choirs, the gender-neutral term chorister is more often being used instead.
Extensive musical training is provided, in particular for cathedral choristers. A number of famous composers and musicians began their careers as choristers. In 1740, Franz Josef Haydn was sent at the age of eight to Vienna to become a choirboy at Saint Stephen's Cathedral. Franz Schubert was accepted into the choir of the Imperial Court Chapel in 1808 when he was 11. Dudley Moore became a choirboy at six.
Boys sing treble up to about 14 years of age, often moving to Alto, Tenor or Bass after that. A small bursary is paid to the boys each term, and opportunities arise for other bonuses during the year.
The competition was open only to boy choristers up until 1986 when the BBC first organized an additional separate competition for girl choristers through the age of 16. The two competitions ran side-by-side for three years before the RSCM competition began including girls in its own competitions, naming both a choirboy and choirgirl of the year. From 1989 to 1992, both the BBC and RSCM named a different girl as Choirgirl of the Year.
In 1998, BBC Radio 2 began hosting a combined boys and girls competition, without any other simultaneous competitions. James Fox, from St. Mary's Warwick, was named Choirboy of the Year and Eloise Irving, from West Sussex, was named Choirgirl of the Year. The format has remained the same through the most recent competition.
The 2007 winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year competition were twelve-year-old Joel Whitewood of Canterbury Cathedral and 15-year-old Charlotte Louise McKechnie of Giffnock South Church in Scotland. The finals were held at St Paul's Cathedral in London and hosted by Aled Jones.