The English language is complex and amorphous, as it changes shape over time, innocuous words can turn into slang with the slight of a media faux pas or the grandeur of a revolution. With the Civil Rights movement giving birth to political correctness certain words were taken out of the vernacular and given exclusivity to certain groups to be handled with care and only used with privilege. “Girl” fell victim to the Modern Feminist movement, which was also born out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. With the best intentions the word was proclaimed off limits to men when referring to a woman and was only to be used literally or among women with each other. The intention of this edict was to subvert male dominance and to empower ourselves. It was never intended to make “girl” a four letter word.
“Girl” in it’s correct form, is the word used to label a pre-pubescent female. Ironically in early English, from the 13th to the 15th century, “girl” was used to describe both male and female children. Unfortunately today it is also used as a disparaging term towards boys or men to signify weakness and incompetence. The more disturbing trend is girls using it to denigrate each other in the same way. In feminist Jessica Valenti’s book, Full Frontal Feminist she suggests an exercise; to ask yourself what is the worst thing you can call a girl? She follows with what is the worst thing you can call a guy? The answer, sadly she states “The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl”. Regrettably when women rebuffed “girl” the impression it left on society was that it must be a bad word regardless of the circumstances.
Girls and boys are both ridiculed with statements like “ you run like a girl” or “you throw like a girl”. Hearing these statements repeatedly undermines the self esteem of young girls by giving them the impression that they are physically inferior. Another irony since boys are biologically less viable at birth and women outlive men by six years. Our ability to express our emotions also decreases our risk of stress related diseased. So go ahead and “cry like a girl” it could add a few years to your life. When accused of acting like a girl we should respond with a thank you, and take it as a compliment.
Historically, “girl” has also been used to describe women who worked in subservient roles, such as prostitutes, maids or secretaries. Even in the early 1980’s the term “girl Friday’ was commonly used to describe a female assistant, and still brings up several administrative listings when searched on Monster.com. However, men are expressly forbidden from referring to women as girls in the workplace. For a man to refer to a fully grown woman as a girl suggests that she is not going to be taken seriously, she is not mature, and certainly not ready for responsibility. It is condescending and the ultimate show of disrespect.
On the other hand women are labeled as too masculine when they excel in power positions and as traitors to the feminist cause if they choose service roles or to stay at home and raise their children. Until women can form an alliance over our varying roles and bring dignity to “girl” in all it’s usage our daughters and nieces will still feel it is a synonym for passive. Gloria Steinem explained “Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor in which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned.” We need to rejoice in the power of all of our choices and not judge each other by them.
Today women use “girl” freely with each other as a term of endearment. This exclusivity gives the word a special place in the feminist vernacular. It is used carefully, with emotion and implies a connectedness with each other. .Eleanor Roosevelt once said “… no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Until women solidify their place in this world and rejoice in our freedom of choices, instead of feeling overwhelmed by them we cannot expect the younger generations to feel equal to the opposite sex.
C.T. Onions (Editor) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology 1996, 11/7/2007, www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O27-girl.html
Valenti, Jessica, Full Frontal Feminism, 2007, Seal Press