When does a girl become a woman in the English language? If you spend a lot of time with college students, which I happen to do, you see them trying to navigate this question, trying to figure out what to call themselves and/or call each other. The ages of 18-22 seem to capture the girl-woman transition, at least lexically. Just think about sports teams: generally speaking, high schools have girls’ soccer, swimming, volleyball, etc.; colleges compete in women’s soccer, swimming, volleyball, etc. Yet many college women choose not to call themselves women.
The history of the word woman over the past 100 years has been critically shaped by the feminist movement. In the 19th century, it was often viewed as the less polite way to refer to women, as compared with lady, or as a way to distinguish less refined women from more refined ladies. (See Ben and Maria Yagoda’s post “Hey, ‘Lady’! An Exchange” from this past November for further discussion.) One key goal of feminism, which has argued for calling adult women women, is that women should be on equal footing with men—and using the word girl (or lady, for different reasons) to refer to adult women undermines that.
Given that I’ve brought up the history of the word woman, it is worth taking a moment for a side note, to dispel a couple of false etymologies. Please don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that this word derives from “womb-man” or “woe-to-man.” Pure rubbish. It comes from Old English wifmann, back when wif (later wife) meant ‘female’ and mann really could mean ‘person’ in general.
So what’s a female English speaker of college age to call herself?
This question addresses something between a gap and conundrum in English. Guys of college age have the all-purpose term guy. For whatever reason, its counterpart gal never made it in standard usage. The word guy usefully seems to cover males from about 15 to at least 40. In this way, it offers a very flexible midway point: a lexical option that allows speakers not to have to choose between boys and men.
Another side-note here: Many of us can use the plural guys to address groups, even all-female groups, with “you guys” or “Hey, guys!” And if you’re like me, you can even use guy to refer to inanimate objects: For example, “I can’t get this guy out” in reference to, say, a nail. But guy(s) does not work in third-person reference to women: for example, “I ran into this guy at the store” definitely refers to a male guy. And while dude is going through some very interesting changes in English—including its use as a discourse marker (e.g., “Dude, that’s awesome!” where the dude does not seem to address anything at all)—it is no help here. Females of college age, and those talking about them, must choose between girl and woman.
When I talk with female students at the University of Michigan, they have a range of reasons why they aren’t sure they want to use the word woman, including: the word woman sounds overly adult or professional; it carries loaded connotations of sexual experience; and/or it makes an unwanted feminist statement. As one student said to me, “Girls get dates; women don’t.” Oh goodness! I hope that is not the case. But I do understand that college-age students are struggling with the forced choice that English presents to them, where each option may not feel quite right for different reasons.
It is not my job to dictate how young women refer to themselves. It does fall within my job description, though, to ask them to think critically about the denotations and connotations of words as they are used in different contexts. How does the word girl work differently in “Hey girls!” than it does in “the girl who gave the speech”? What are the differences between young women calling one another girls and young men (or “guys”) calling them girls? What about faculty calling them girls? I often hear faculty catch themselves, and correct themselves, when they call college students “kids,” because the juvenile connotations of the word do not do college students justice. I less often hear faculty catch and correct themselves when they call college students “girls.”
I am honest with students that the word girl sounds younger than college to me, and we talk about the word’s potential power to diminish the adult status of female college students. I also find myself wishing sometimes that English gave us a word with the age-flexibility of guy for women at this transitional moment.
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