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Word of the week: Girl
We're adults, but "woman" is just too serious.
“ ‘Girls’ Rule the Internet,” reads the online headline of Marie Solis’s feature story for the New York Times Style section, published on September 10. (The link bypasses the paywall.) Note the scare quotes around “girl”: We’re talking not about female children, but about adults of any gender (OK, primarily the XX kind) who want to “establish an in-group and relish a particular kind of bond.” Or, alternatively, to reject the opposite identity, which is not “boy,” but “woman.” Girl, writes Solis, allows women “to enjoy feminine pleasures without the complications that most associate with womanhood.”
For independent corroboration, turn a few pages in that Style section and read about the wedding of Kimberly Alexander, self-described “academic girl.” She is 35 years old.
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I’ve been tracking the popularity of girl in brands and titles for a while now—see this August 2018 blog post (“Girls, Girls, Girls!”) and this 2015 post (“Cover Girls”). I’ve watched “Girls” on HBO (2012-2017), seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (couldn’t make it past Page 2 of the book on which it’s based), and read The Radium Girls and Code Girls, both published in 2017. I subscribe to a newsletter called Girls of a Certain Age, whose author is nearly 60.
I’m also old enough to remember being annoyed when men, often in boss-like roles, referred to me as a “girl.” It was demeaning and dismissive. I was a grown-up! I was a feminist! I was Woman, Hear Me Roar!
We’re past all that, is what I’m inferring from the Times article and others like it. (See “We’ve Reached Peak Girl” published in July in Vanity Fair.) Girl is now welcoming, inclusive, and non-age-dependent. And it’s flexible: “The word ‘girl’ can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an exclamation, meaning something slightly different depending on how it’s said and who has said it,” writes Solis.
(I was skeptical about that “verb” claim, but the OED in fact gives two separate definitions for to girl: 1) “To provide (a vessel) with a female crew or (a workplace) with female staff (as a conscious and sometimes humorous alternative to man”—the earliest citation is from 1866—and 2) a “now rare” Scottish usage meaning “to thrill or tingle.”)
The enthusiasm for girl has also reinvigorated girlie, which since the late 18th century has been a diminutive of girl that’s sometimes an endearment and sometimes, because of that diminutive suffix, an insult. (Who else remembers The Music Man’s anvil salesman, Charlie Cowell, saying to Marian Paroo, “Not on your tintype, girlie girl”? Marian was not amused.) In 2023, girlie can be gender neutral, which has made it popular among trans women. On the internet, girlies are ubiquitous, wrote Emily Gould in The Cut last month:
There are so many types of girlies: the TikTok girlies, the new shaving-technique girlies, the girlies who simply aren’t paying. There are the pitiable girlies who aren’t fully thriving: the IBS girlies, the chronic-illness girlies, the depression girlies. There are as many ways to be a girlie as there are to be a human being, which lends the word both its charm and its deplorable meaninglessness.
What’s interesting about all this girling is that girl began life, linguistically, as a gender-neutral noun: Although its origins are unknown—I recall reading somewhere that it has no cognates in other European languages—in Middle English it meant “a young child of either sex.” (A boy was a “knave girl.” Boy, by the way, is also “of uncertain origin.”) By the late 1300s girl was being restricted to female children; in the late 1800s it could be used, as it is today, to refer to a woman of any age.
Girl sells: in songs, in movies, in brands. I found 6,853 live GIRL trademarks in the U.S. trademark database; some are for goods and services aimed at prepubescent females, but the majority are grownup brands:: YOGURTGIRL (wigs and hair extensions, go figure), GROWN GIRL DIVORCE (legal services), PIZZA GIRL (electric grills), HOT GIRL MENOPAUSE (health services), ROCKET GIRL (beer), THE REPUBLICAN GIRL (blog), GIRLS WHO CHASE (storm chasing), and GIRL WAKE THAT A$$ UP (personal development), to cite a tiny percentage of GIRL trademarks filed just within the last two years. The oldest GIRL trademarks, from 1954 and 1967, respectively, are girly only in translation: LA GITANA wines (which the trademark filing says means “The Gypsy Girl”) and PERUGINA candies (“The girl from Perugia”).
If all this girliness makes you squirm, writes Solis, just be patient: “[W]hile ‘girl’ may fill a particular void at the moment—offering a capacious container for just about any feeling one might have about gender, adulthood, feminism, and more—it probably won’t be long before it is used a slightly different way or replaced altogether.” Should we be bracing ourselves for a resurgence of “ladies”?