It’s a small word. A common word. And like many small, common words, it is saturated with meaning.
Sure, “girl” means “female child.” The basic meaning is relatively simple. But we use it in a lot of other ways, too. And that’s wonderful, actually. One of the things I like about words is their strange ability to be both precise and elastic, to have both an exact meaning and a host of other associations and idiosyncrasies.
Some of the associations we have with the term “girl,” though, are ultimately damaging. Living in the South, I’m also not unfamiliar with the racial connotations that may accompany the word, though the racial implications of “boy” are more often discussed and debated. We’re probably all familiar with the phrase “like a girl” as a pejorative meaning that something wasn’t done very well. And many of us, especially of a certain generation, have been called girls by bosses or professors, all too often with an unpleasant sneer or the jovial guffaw of ambivalent sexism.
On some level, the negative connotations attached to the word “girl” are about age and maturity. Because “girl” is a term for a non-adult female, it becomes be a term for someone who is not yet mature. And because we live in a culture that values age and maturity, childishness is in many ways devalued, giving the word a negative sense. And unlike the male equivalents of boy/man, there isn’t a word “guy,” a more neutral word than “boy” for a young man.
This should be fairly obvious if you use Google to search for girl versus woman. The first 5 are 10 pages are divided almost exclusively into 2 categories: articles that compare traits of girls and women and articles that discuss whether to use the word “girl” or the word “woman.” Articles that compare girls to women are almost universally concerned with dating, though many simply focus on contrasting the two. Articles that discuss the uses of the words “girl” and “woman” vary in their acceptance of the term “girl,” with some detesting it, some embracing it, and some ok’ing it but with caveats. And then there’s the recent HBO show Girls (I’ve only subjected myself to one episode, but I hear the show is all the rage right now.)
But the opposite of girl is not woman.
We have to stop contrasting girls and women. We have to stop bashing girls. We are damaging each other.
You might’ve noticed that I have “girls” in my tagline and that I have a “girls and women” category. (If you didn’t, go notice it now. Shoo.) Last year, I wrote an A to Z series about girls in children’s literature. And the Monster has always been a girl-centric blog.
So what do you think? Do you prefer to be (or hate to be) called “girl” or “woman”? How can we improve the connotation of the word “girl”? Are shows like “Girls” and movements like the “Riot Grrrrls” working to reclaim the word or do they further turn you away?