Published in the Fall 2008 issue • The Last Word
A shameless look at the history, use and power of everyday words
I think it’s about time I set the record straight on something: I’m not a girl.
No, it’s not that I’m renouncing my gender or recovering from a sex-change operation. But, at 28 years of age, with a full-time job, my own apartment and a disposition as crotchety as that of your average octogenarian, it’s safe to say I’m no longer a girl. So why do people keep calling me that?
And it’s not just me. On a daily basis, I listen to friends, family members and co-workers talk about the “girl” they met at a party (who happens to be a 37-year-old award-winning author) or the “girl” who helped them at the bank (the branch manager, who’s a mother of two).
We don’t casually refer to grown men as boys: to do so would be considered disrespectful and a challenge to one’s manhood. But calling a grown woman a girl doesn’t raise the same red flags.
It’s part of a larger pattern of infantilization that we’ve talked about before (see “The Last Word: Chick” in the Fall 2006 issue of Shameless), where a woman’s status is lowered by the way she’s defined by others.
When I consulted my well-worn copy of Womanwords for author Jane Mills’s thoughts on the matter, I was greeted with this quote from Mary Wollstonecraft (circa 1792): “Men, indeed, appear to act in a very unphilosophical manner when they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood.”
Amen, sister. Bluntly put, girls are smaller, less powerful and less threatening than women.
As it turns out, the word “girl” has an interesting history. As Mills found, when girl (alternately spelled gurle, girle or gerle) entered the English language in the 13th century, it was used to mean a child of either sex: knave girl meant a male child, while gay girl meant female. By the 1530s, girl had become gender-specific and not long after that, it took on low-status connotations, becoming slang for a female domestic labourer (by 1668) and then prostitute (in the 1700s).
Things have changed, but not that much. These days, the first definition in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for girl is “a female child or youth.” A little further down, you get “offensive a female servant” and “often offensive a grown woman” (emphasis theirs). If the folks who edit the dictionary know that it’s offensive to call me a girl, why don’t friends, family and strangers at parties?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being called a girl, if indeed that’s what you are. After all, I’m one of the co-founders who gave Shameless the tagline “for girls who get it” (before we knew that our readership would extend past the teen years to women of all ages). But when I hear someone call me (or any of the amazing, accomplished, mature, independent women I know) a girl, all I want to tell them is this: “Grow up.”
Melinda Mattos is a founding editor of Shameless. When she’s home alone, she enjoys singing Peggy Lee’s “I’m a Woman” at the top of her lungs.