Why? What would you rather be called?
I read a few articles, which you can read here:
In short, they feel that “girls” when used to describe grown ups is either patronizing or sexually suggestive, and that it lends itself to our obsession with youth and our sexualization of young girls.
Actually, this boils down to a basic issue with the English language – we have one fewer feminine pronoun than we do male pronouns. So the pronoun “girl” does double duty. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Male/Female – probably the most “formal” of the gender labels. This is generally reserved for science speak, labeling patients or specimens. It can be used for humans or any species of animals. Anywhere you use “male”, “female” is acceptable.
“In this study we found that male rats were ….. compared to the female rats held in the same conditions.”
Man/Woman – we don’t use this to refer to animals so this is the most formal label for humans alone. Instead of meaning the specific gender within the species it means an adult human of a specific gender. They are interchangeable but used mostly in descriptive, 3rd person, speak or when we are teaching young children about gender.
“Mommy is a woman. Daddy is a man.”
“Yes, I know Mrs. So’n’so from church, she’s a very generous woman.”
“Mr. This’n’that at the corner store is such a nice man.”
Husband/Wife – also referring to adult humans, this is a relationship label. Her husband. His wife. (Or his husband and her wife, depending on the situation). We really only use these labels to identify one person’s relationship to another person or to identify our own status within a community, for example, I am a wife.
Father/Mother – adult humans who have or care for offspring. There are many versions (mom, dad, mommy, daddy, ma, pa, da, mum, pops ….) which are more casual. Like husband/wife these words are generally used as a way to identify one person’s relationship to another person, to identify our status, or for our children to easily identify us.
Grandfather/Grandmother/Uncle/Aunt – All other relationship tags have this duality, with the exception of “cousin” which is gender neutral. Whether we are discussing our elders or our youngers (niece/nephew, son/daughter) or our peers (brother/sister) we have a word for that. They are used to show respect to an adult (as in honourary aunts and uncles), to label others or ourselves, and to identify our interconnectivity to the world around us.
Gentleman/Lady – Here’s a complicated one. Gentleman has retained a very strict connotation. It means a man who displays certain positive characteristics. A gentleman does not cuss in front of ladies or children, he holds open doors, he carries heavy items and reaches things from high shelves. He is polite, and respectful. A lady, therefore, is a woman of poise and grace, a woman who does not cuss in polite company, holds her pinky out when she drinks her tea, takes care of her appearance, and carries herself with grace and dignity.
Okay. Enough. Can we update this to modern times?
A gentleman is a man who uses his manners when the situation calls for it, is respectful of people, and generally doesn’t go around making an ass of himself unless he’s goofing off with his friends. A lady is a woman who uses her manners when the situation calls for it, is respectful of people, and generally doesn’t go around acting like a bitch unless she’s goofing off with her friends.
While most people accept the updated definition of gentleman, lady still retains images of women who never swears, never raises her voice, never voices a controversial opinion, etc. It’s a very Victorian word.
Mister/Missus – you know, Mr. Mrs.? They mean a married man or a married woman and are generally tacked to a last name when you’re not on a first name basis with someone. It denotes not only their marital status but respect from the person speaking.
Master/Miss – bet you didn’t know that the opposite of Miss, an unmarried woman, was actually Master. Due to the negative connotations of the word Master in reference to slavery it has largely been dropped from casual conversation and replaced with Mister, shortened to Mr. But if you ever get mail for your son and it’s addressed to Mstr. Name, well that’s short for Master.
Mister/Ms. – After a certain age we stop calling men Mstr., especially in North America where the term Master has a negative connotation. So Mister also applies to unmarried men as opposed to unmarried boys. Ms. is not short for Miss, it is used to denote an unmarried woman over a certain age, or a woman who is not intending to get married, or a woman who is married but kept her last name.
Boy/Girl – Both formal and casual, this refers to children. We add prefixes to further identify the child’s age. A young boy. A teen girl. At a certain age we may replace boy/girl with young man/woman, but this tends to be used in situations similar to when we would use man/woman.
“I have a house full of teenage boys” and “I have a house full of young men” mean the same thing, but one implies they are still children at heart and one implies the potential for maturity is showing.
This reinforces that boy/girl has connotations of immaturity, youthfulness, playfulness, and irresponsibility. This is why phrases like “boys with be boys” is also troublesome, especially when applied to men. Yes, boys will be boys, they will be young and energetic and get into all sorts of trouble. But they are supposed to learn, to grow up, to become young men, and then men. And since we don’t excuse other forms of misbehaviour, well, that’s another rant for another time.
Boyfriend/Girlfriend – this implies a romantic relationship between two youthful individuals. It is now also used for adults who are courting, replacing the old fashioned term of suitor just as dating has replaced courting.
Guy/Gal – Guy is a casual term that is sometimes used as a gender neutral though it is masculine. It is used to refer to a group of males with some connection (a classroom full of people, the group you hang out with, etc). Hey guys. You guys. Hanging with the guys. Gal, while equally casual and the conversational equivalent, has, for some reason, fallen out of fashion in the last few decades. Of course the 1930s equivalent to guy is doll, and I don’t think we need that making a comeback if we have a problem with the word girl as a casual term for a grown woman.
With Gal having lost its popularity there is no other real feminine casual for female friends. That’s why “girl” tends to do double duty. Girls night out. My girlfriends. The girls. You could replace “girl” in each of these sentences with boy or with guy or with gal and get the same meaning, either masculine or feminine.
What I think is the real issue here is not the language used but the context.
If the Prime Minister of Canada is talking about his Cabinet he speaks about the men and women he works with. He speaks about the ladies in Parliament. He speaks about the men or gentlemen at the office. He is a professional speaking about other professionals, in a professional setting, so he uses professional sounding pronouns. If Justin Trudeau is speaking informally about his wife he may just refer to her as “the girl that stole my heart” as a term of endearment. If he’s speaking directly to his wife without the media around he may come in and say “Hey pretty girl,” again as a term of endearment. He is a man speaking to or about his wife in a casual context.
Context. Who is speaking. Who is being spoken to. Who is being spoken of.
These senators or governors should not be speaking about the females in their work place as “girls” especially when speaking to the media. To walk up to them and say “Are you headed out with the girls this weekend?” is perfectly acceptable, casual, office speak. To say to the reporters “they’re silly girls” or “those girls are tough to work with” is demeaning, and insulting. They (the women in question) are professionals in a professional context and should be referred to in professional terms.
We can’t get rid of “girls” as a term for adult women because adult women are the ones using it. But “boys” is often used to refer to men as well. Out with the boys. “Me and the Boys” (a fantastic song that is not about their sons). Girls night out. Girlfriends.
We need to keep our casual language to casual settings among friends and family and casual acquaintances and we need the professionals to keep their language professional in professional settings.
I would expect my doctor to hand me a paper and say “take this to the ladies at the front desk” not the “girls” at the front desk. But I wouldn’t bat an eye at me sister saying she was going out to make ceramics with the girls Friday night.
We don’t need to remodel the English language. We need to establish boundaries for professional conduct that take into account context.
What do you think?