"Girl" is a tricky word. Use it to describe a woman in her 20s, 30s, or beyond, and you're in for a whirlwind of implications. It comes from a semantically fraught place, one where women are regarded as inferior adults (at best) and children (at worst). And it's been considered somewhat taboo since second-wave feminists pointed out its sexist origins and fought hard to be called "women." Yet here we are, in 2015, saying it every single day. But it's not just something we say to our friends in casual conversations. It's everywhere. Fashion girl. It Girl. Hey girl. It's in our hashtags, our headlines, and our memes. It's found its way onto the covers of best-selling books (Gone Girl, #GIRLBOSS, Not That Kind Of Girl) and into the titles of hit TV shows (New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, Girls). Now CBS's new show Supergirl, which premieres October 26, is joining this girl gang, but it's doing so in a very conscious way. In the first episode, we see Calista Flockhart dress down Supergirl for suggesting the name undermines the superhero. "Girl" (or more specifically "gerle," "gurle," and "girle") entered the English language in the 13th century when it meant a child of either gender, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By the late 1800s, it was being used to describe women of any age, albeit mostly in a pejorative sense. Google Ngram, which charts the frequency of words and phrases used in print from 1800 on, shows it increasing at the turn of the 20th century, until a decline in the '40s. And after 60 years of lows, something interesting begins to happen in 2000: It starts to rise.
While it's hard to pinpoint exactly what's causing the uptick, we suspect "girl" is shedding some of its older, more negative connotations. The word doesn't mean the same thing to millennials and Gen X as it does to boomer women — or anyone who had to endure being called "girl" by a male boss she fetched coffee for. "It's what I call, 'shit my mom had to put up with,'" says Mignon Fogarty, founder of Grammar Girl and author of The New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. We talked to her, along with a few other language experts, to figure out what's going on with the word "girl." Have we all just agreed it's the female word for guy? We wouldn't be the first to search for the guy equivalent. In 2013, Ann Friedman argued that "lady" was the messiah of a word in the New Republic — the one, she wrote, that "splits the difference between the infantilizing 'girl' and the stuffy, Census-bureau cold 'woman.'" A year earlier, The Atlantic declared "gal" to be that word, as if that were something anyone said without lacing it with irony first. Both come with a certain level of affectation and self-awareness. They are what we say when choosing our words carefully, but "girl" is unfiltered. Girl is what we say when we aren't choosing our words at all. If there was ever a place to not choose our words carefully, it's social media and the internet at large. It's the longest casual conversation ever had, and a stark contrast to the standard world of journalism. There, AP Style, the governing guide, ensures that any female 18 and over is identified as a woman. Until 20 years ago, everything passed through this filter, which makes it nearly impossible to say exactly how "girl" was used previously. Is it more common now, or are our conversations just more public?
This difference becomes evident on social media where casual conversation, personal ramblings, and serious journalism collide. When we compare the top 30 hashtags related to "girl" and "woman" on Hashtagify.me, we find some similarities, but many more differences. Hashtags like #news, #Iraq, and #UN start to converge around "woman;" however, fun and feminine words, like #happy, #me, and #Instagood huddle around "girl." It could be that AP Style's influence is still strong (news sites do tend to write about news), yet it also illustrates how we use the two differently — not merely to indicate age but to delineate between familiarity and formality. Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, is someone who very consciously chose to use "girl" to engender a sense of familiarity. She says she did it to sound friendly and approachable and — of course — because of the alliteration it creates. And while she doesn't consider the word taboo, these associations are the very things that make "girl" a loaded word. Not that there's anything wrong with embodying these qualities, but they are inevitably linked to the darker side of "girl": to being harmless, to being unimportant, to being a child. When we try to consider the alternatives, though, things don't get better. Linguist and writer Gretchen McCulloch points out that there is a long history with words associated with woman — all words associated with woman — being used pejoratively. "Mistress," she says, is the female equivalent of "master," but it's not actually used in parallel. You wouldn't call the other man a "master" (nor would you call him the "other man").
Even "lady," a synonym that's widely accepted, comes with more baggage than any four-letter word should have. It used to stand opposite of "lord," but it evolved into a euphemism for woman, a subtle reminder to be on your best behavior. Despite undergoing its own reclamation in recent years — it seems to be enjoying its third act as a prefix (ladyblog, ladydoc, ladyparts) — its past is every bit as compromised as "girl." If the history of words teaches us anything, it's that definitions change, connotations evolve, and context is everything. If millennials don't see the word "girl" as negative, then that is not a failure of second-wave feminists — it is the ultimate success. And now that it's our word, we can choose exactly how to use it. Who knows? Maybe Gen Z will never even realize it was ever questioned.