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Last updated: Thu. Aug. 07, 2014 - 12:17 am EDT

Weighing when it's OK to use the word 'girl'

Context is key if referring to grown woman

The word “girl” can be tricky.

I would know. Since I go by the moniker Grammar Girl, you won't be surprised that I'm fine with the word; but I've been criticized by people who say I'm a grown woman and should identify as such.

To the complainers, I say I can call myself whatever I want, thank you.

Nevertheless, I see their point.

Entire insults are framed around the word “girl” (e.g., “throw like a girl” and “run like a girl”), and right now one of the hottest videos on YouTube is the Always #LikeAGirl campaign, which shows how telling kids they “hit like a girl” makes them think that girls are weak and somehow bad.

The video, complete with stirring music, tries to retake the word, encouraging girls to embrace their girlness and feel powerful. They ask, “Why can't 'run like a girl' also mean 'win the race?' ”

“Girl” has an interesting history, and its meanings – literal and subtle – have changed over and over again in English.

Back in the 1300s, “girl” meant a child of either sex. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that a “knave girl” was a boy. Meanings change, and about 100 years later, “girl” meant a young female, and by the late 1800s, “girl” was also being used for women (although the dictionary notes that such use was often derogatory). Researchers publishing in the journal American Speech have shown that the females we think of as women are becoming younger – it's not unusual to refer to 16-year-old girls as women – and that the word “woman” calls to mind sexual overtones more often than “girl” or “lady.” A Google Ngram search shows that “like a girl” insults have been increasing (at least in books) since the 1980s.

I chose to call myself Grammar Girl primarily because I liked the alliteration and because I wanted to present information in a fun, friendly, and – most important – unintimidating way. In that sense, I was taking advantage of the harmlessness and frivolity associated with the word “girl.”

“Most of us were called 'girl' at some point in our lives,” writes Ashley Jennings, founder of Girlmade, an accelerator that caters to businesses owned by women in Reno, Nevada. “For most of us it was a neutral word. Neither good nor bad, it just was.” She too was taking advantage of positive associations from “girl” when choosing her company name: “We could all use a little more innocence, risk taking and pure pleasure seeking, if we are to be successful entrepreneurs.”

Kristy Dalton, CEO of Government Social Media, also seems to be taking advantage of the light-heartedness of the word “girl” with her quirky GovGirl videos (and again, advantageous alliteration). Who can make government services fun? A girl, of course.

People have asked, if alliteration was important, why didn't I use the word “gal” instead? “Gal” is much younger word, etymologically speaking. It arose around 1800 as a regional or colloquial pronunciation of “girl.” Today, though, it has a sense of being old-fashioned. The use of “gal” peaked in American English around 1940, which explains why it calls to mind the Andrew Sisters wearing military uniforms singing about the boogie woogie bugle boys of Company B. Those were gals – great gals – but I didn't want to reinforce notion that the only person who cares about grammar is your grandma.

“Grrl” was an interesting option. The journal American Speech included “grrl” in a 1997 new-word roundup, and I remember immediately loving the growling, fierce feeling I got the first time I saw that word. I considered calling myself Grammar Grrl instead of Grammar Girl, but in the end, the irony of the misspelling was too much.

Context also matters. If a friend greets me with “Hey, girl,” that's great. If I walk into an office and the receptionist calls his boss and says, “That girl is here for your meeting,” that's not great. If I'm in the South, and a waitress calls me “honey,” it's cute because it's what they do there. If I'm in a business meeting and a man or a woman calls me “honey,” it's not cute. It's insulting in that context.

I suspect context is also one reason we don't often use “boy” to refer to men. The racist connection is too prominent in our minds, yet this Julia Roberts line from the movie “Notting Hill” shows that “boy” can still work in some situations: “I'm also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” Note how “girl” and “boy” reinforce the idea of vulnerability that is essential to the scene.

Finally, while we're here, let me put on my Grammar Girl hat and tell you about “woman” versus “female”: If you wouldn't use the word “man,” don't use “woman.” If you wouldn't write “man lawyer,” you shouldn't write “woman lawyer.”

The adjective you're looking for is “female,” and you should use it sparingly: Use it if you have a good reason to highlight someone's sex, such as when someone is the first female astronaut to visit Mars.


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