Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Being a Girl...Not

Let me make this absolutely crystal clear: I AM NOT A GIRL! Not even the promise of untold riches and fame beyond my imagination could get me to travel back to that time period when I was a girl. I recently corrected someone on another blog and via email who was referring to "young married girls." Contradiction in terms there, an oxymoron of the highest order. That one of the commenters who countered my assertion that girls are not married women laid claim to being an English major merely confirmed to me that today's students aren't getting a well-rounded enough education, particularly in linguistics, philology, diction distinctions and today's commonly acceptable usage.

Let's lay this out fairly briefly. All languages have specific words that refer to the male and female of the species. Some of these words have multiple meanings. Some of these words are age dependent, and some are position dependent, the major position being a particular state as regards marriage.

The word "girl" comes to us from Middle English gurle, girle, circa 1250-1300, derived from the Old English gyrela. Its meaning was female child or young person. As the word made its way through the centuries it also took on the meaning of a young, immature woman or an un married woman. Parents often use the word as a substitute for "daughters" when they say they have two girls.

It is considered offensive today to use the term "girl" to refer to employees of all types (and the EEOC has the clout to punish the offenders); it is also considered slang when you apply the term to a grown woman, and may be considered offensive. Informally some women will refer to a "girls' night out." Note the "some women will refer." When a man refers to an outing in this way, many will take offense. In short, when you have the choice of using girl or woman, choose woman as the safest, least offensive option.

Now, why would some married women use the term "girls" in reference to themselves? One possibility is that woman sounds "too old" to them. However, if age is the stumbling block, English supports calling them young married women or just plain young marrieds. Where the dividing line is between young married women and just plain married women is fuzzy. It can't be the presence of children alone that is the deciding factor. If a 39-year-old woman has one child and has been married one year is she a young married? If a 26-year-old has 5 kids and has been married 8 years is she a young married? And then, of course, there is that "perfect" solution to whether or not they are young married girls or young married women--just call them wives.

There are other words used with varying frequency to describe males and females at various stages both for age and for marital status. The term "maiden" is a general term for an unmarried female. Unfortunately it also gave us "old maid" for one of indeterminate years who is unmarried.

If one is over 21 and either married or not married and objects to being called a woman, I have to ask why. A woman is the mature representative of the female cohort; a girl is the immature representative. Girl-hood lasts for a relatively short time; woman-hood is a much longer time period. Being a woman offers decades of possibilities, of things to do, places to go.

English is not the only language that has these distinctions; all other languages have them as well. What is a "yaldah" in Hebrew if not a girl? But a woman or a married woman is described as an "isha." In Yiddish/German both a young girl and an unmarried female are called a "maidel" or a "maadchen" or if older, a "moidt." Those beyond childhood are a "frau", or a "veib" if they are married.

As I started out, I am quite happy to be a woman. And yes, I see being called a girl as an insult, as an attempt to denigrate my status. My husband may have married a girl in one very specific meaning of that word, but it was a woman who came down that aisle and stood under the chupah. It's a woman who has shared his life for all these years. And yes, frankly, girls titter and twitter and giggle. Not me--I am woman...hear me roar!


Lea said...

Touchy, touchy! But I can understand. I worked for years for a boss who had two kinds of employees: men and girls. None of us liked it but back then there wasn't the type of law that there is now.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%, but I will just relate a cute story. When my husband's sister was in her mid-teens she was quite a feminist, and she referred to her friends as "women." Her grandmother, on the other hand, would get together with "the girls" for a game of mahjongg. My mother-in-law a"h jokingly despaired, "My daughter plays with women and my mother plays with girls!"

JS said...

Can't wait to hear you lash out at all the frum men who seem to refer to women as "ladies." Drives me up the wall, and I'm a guy (or is that man?).

"Girl" can also be affectionate. For example, a "girl" friend, which applies regardless of age. In fact, some people will specifically say "my lady friend" to indicate a lack of affection or to not give the wrong idea. On the other hand, you have romantic songs such as "My girl" and Celine Dione's "I'm your lady, and you are my man."

What are your thoughts to referring to a group of men and women as "guys" or just a group of women as "guys"? I've seen both men and women do this.

ProfK said...

You can call "my girl friend" an affectionate term, if used by a male, but it really just points back to the fact that she isn't married to you and is a girl in that sense.

The use of guy and guys is informal and it seems that it has become acceptable to refer to a mixed sex group as "guys" or even to a group of women. The singular still refers to a male only.

Re the "ladies," as long as it's plural and is being used to address a group it's mostly still okay to use. The dictionary tells you the following: "ladies -
–noun 1. a woman who is refined, polite, and well-spoken.
2. a woman of high social position or economic class.
3. any woman; female (sometimes used in combination): the lady who answered the phone; a saleslady.
4. (Used in direct address: often offensive in the singular): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Lady, out of my way, please.
5. wife: The ambassador and his lady arrived late.
6. Slang. a female lover or steady companion.
7. (initial capital letter) (in Great Britain) the proper title of any woman whose husband is higher in rank than baronet or knight, or who is the daughter of a nobleman not lower than an earl (although the title is given by courtesy also to the wives of baronets and knights).
8. a woman who has proprietary rights or authority, as over a manor; female feudal superior. Compare lord (def. 4).
9. (initial capital letter) the Virgin Mary.
10. a woman who is the object of chivalrous devotion.
11. (usually initial capital letter) a. an attribute or abstraction personified as a woman; a designation of an allegorical figure as feminine: Lady Fortune; Lady Virtue.
b. a title prefixed to the name of a goddess: Lady Venus.

–adjective 12. Sometimes Offensive. being a lady; female: a lady reporter.
13. of a lady; ladylike; feminine.

Usage note:
In the meanings “refined, polite woman” and “woman of high social position” the noun lady is the parallel of gentleman. As forms of address, both nouns are used in the plural (Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your cooperation), but only lady occurs in the singular. Except in chivalrous, literary, or similar contexts (Lady, spurn me not), this singular is now usually perceived as rude or at least insensitive: Where do you want the new air conditioner, lady? Although lady is still found in phrases or compounds referring to occupation or the like (cleaning lady; forelady; saleslady), this use seems to be diminishing. The use of lady as a modifier (lady doctor; lady artist) suggests that it is unusual to find a woman in the role specified. Many women are offended by this use, and it too is becoming less common.
An approach that is increasingly followed is to avoid specifying the sex of the performer or practitioner. Person or a sex-neutral term can be substituted for lady, as cleaner for cleaning lady, supervisor for forelady, and salesperson or salesclerk for saleslady. When circumstances make it relevant to specify sex, woman not lady is used, the parallel term being man: Men doctors outnumber women doctors on the hospital staff by more than three to one.

Anonymous said...

I am a 50ish professional woman and I have no problem being referred to as a girl, as long as males of my age group are also being referred to as boys. And, yes I have heard grown men being referred to as boys. I am even less sensitive outside of the work context since usually when someone uses "girl" these days, I think they are tring to complement someone by using a younger-sounding term. Of course, I tend to mix mostly with people who are not sexist in the least. I might have more of an issue with the term girl used by men who I believe might be sexist or are influencing young people with negative/mysoginistic ideas, but on the whole I try to chill out about slip ups in this area as old usages die hard.

Anonymous said...

I am particularly annoyed by the fact that many frum people refer to any unmarried person, regardless of age, as "boy" or "girl". I think it's infantilizing, and that no boy or girl has any business considering marriage.

Another point to keep in mind is that the term "boy" can have racist connotations when used to refer to African-Americans.

Lion of Zion said...


i once gave a presentation in a grad school seminar and the prof stopped me in the middle and told me to stop referring to the women i was talking about as "ladies." i never realized it had a condascending connotation.


"I am particularly annoyed by the fact that many frum people refer to any unmarried person, regardless of age, as "boy" or "girl"."

so i guess you don't like it when the 50-year-old gets called up in shul for an עליה as הבחור פלוני בן פלוני

Lion of Zion said...

and on the subject of בחורים, what about labeling brides as בתולה on wedding invitations?

ProfK said...


Interesting that you bring up "bochur." I did a bit of research and can find no other language that has a word quite like it. The closest you come is the word bachelor for an unmarried male, but that is applied only to those of whatever society considers the age for marriage and on up. We use bochur from Bar Mitzvah on up. Although in Yiddish you will hear some people differentiate between a bochur--meaning young--and alter bochur--someone much older. My mom says alter bochur was used much in the same way that spinster is used.

Just a note: our shul stops using bochur when they call someone up who is mid to late 20s and older.

Rita said...

Bothers me too when I hear the young marrieds calling themselves married girls. You can't have it both ways. But then these women didn't grow up decades ago when girl was not a compliment, was not cute and was a way to put women down. Boys grew up and became men. Girls remained ungrown for eternity. They weren't around when equal pay for equal work wasn't the case.

My first job while in college was advertised in the college newspaper as "Girl Friday wanted." You're so not going to see that today, and good riddance.

Anonymous said...

The word bocher is meant to imply 'chosen' as in bochar bonu m'kol h'amim.

The title was given to unmarried men to differentiate between them and other unmarried men.

Important as grammar is, proper usage is really determined by common usage.

SubWife said...

It used to bother me when someone would say, "Oh, I have a boy for you." Boy? At 27+? I always had a mental comeback that I was looking for a man, someone ready to take on responsibility of a family, not a boy.

Anonymous said...

LOZ, the term "bachur" just refers to "unmarried man"; a bachur is halachically considered an adult (otherwise he couldn't be called to the torah), so that term makes sense & is in no way condescending.

I do agree that the term "besulah" on a wedding invitation is just bizzare--really too much information.

nmf #7 said...

Thanks ProfK. But as a commentator above states, I didn't grow up in the generation where being called a girl was a negative thing.

Although I'm married, and so should be called 'woman', I still refer to myself as a girl- because I'm rather young to be married. And most young marrieds feel the same way I do.

When I have a few more kids or gain a few more years, maybe then woman will look more attractive to me. But I will call other women, women, so as not to offend.

Regarding the besulah on wedding invitations- the way it was explained to me was that it is a compliment used in the times of the gemara- as a besula got more in her ketuba. You could use 'mehullilah'- praiseworthy instead if you're uncomfortable with it.

Anonymous said...

NMF#7: in other words, using "girl" makes you feel young when you're uncomfortable about getting older. Let's face it, we all are getting older and there's no way around it.

Debbie said...

Nmf#7, I'm having some trouble with your saying 'I still refer to myself as a girl- because I'm rather young to be married.' Your blog tells us that your child is turning one, so you've been married about two years. Did you get married way earlier then other frum girls do, particularly the ones in the nyc area? Were you under 18 or 19? Because if you weren't younger then that you weren't considered rather young to be married and you're two years older now. Or is it maybe that you considered yourself very young to get married but got married anyway?

Please don't take it personally nmf but this says somethinig about the forcing by the community of girls to get married at young ages like 18 or 19. They consider themselves very young to get married. Maybe the think this way because they just plain weren't ready to get married and all that means but they got married anyway. Or maybe they still wanted to be part of that 18-19 single group and didn't get to, so they refer to themselves as married girls so they can still claim membership in that group.

nmf #7 said...

Anon- Yeah, but that means I'm in denial. Which is fine with me :D

Debbie- True. But I did get married at one of those ages that you are mentioning.

And, many of my friends are unmarried, or waiting to get married. Does that mean I should refer to them as girls because they didn't marry young? (I wanted to get married, by the way- and I felt myself ready for it, to answer your comment.)

Or rather, I feel the proper thing is to refer to myself as a girl, because to say "I'm a woman, while you, unmarried by 26, are still a girl."

Who really cares who we refer to ourselves as? It's only when you are referring to others that the correct way would be to call women, women.

Debbie said...

Nmf#7, somewhere around 20ish on is when woman starts being appropriate and girl not, even if someone is still unmarried. So you could refer to your friends as just that--friends--without having to worry about the girl/woman designation. Would be just as easy to say 'I'm meeting my friends today' as to say 'I'm meeting the girls today.'

Tziona said...

I think that the problem here is that many generations are living together. what is acceptable for one generation may not be acceptable for another one. My mom's generation still remembers when girl was a real problem and she and her friends will never use it.

My generation got told by our mothers to consider ourselves women once we got older and we mostly use that term.

Our daughters have no idea of how badly that term was used in generations before and use it to be cute. You should have heard the fireworks when my daughter said in front of my mother that we married girls have to stick together.

I guess the sensible thing to do, especially when a mixed group is around, is to not offend anyone there and use woman or young married or wife like the posting suggests. Sort of being safe instead of sorry.

Libby said...

Won't swear to it but I think this using girl for youngish married women is part of the general culture that places youth over age. No one seems to want to be thought of as older. We don't venerate old age the way we used to. If you're still a girl then you're still part of the in group.