Just when feminists thought they had wrestled out of common parlance the word “girl” as a synonym for “woman,” the renegade referent has returned— revised and ready for a rematch. No longer just a badge of youth or a signal of silliness, servitude, or class difference, “Girl!” has almost become a mark of pride in one’s gender, a sarcastic scoff at those who for centuries patronized females with its use.
Homosexuals may refer to each other as “queer.” African-Americans use the word “nigger” with each other as a term of affection. The latest crossover from unacceptable slur to honorific? Women today are resurrecting the word “Girl!”
First used in the thirteenth century as any child, male or female, by the sixteenth century the word “girl” specified female children, and 150 years later referred to a maid-servant—not only a hand around the house, but a virginal one at that—according to Jane Mills’ Woman words, A Dictionary of Words About Women (Henry Holt & Co., Inc.. 1989). This definition held sway into the twentieth century, expanding to include any female worker at all, but still sometimes carrying its eighteenth century link to “prostitute” or “mistress.”
Although The Bias-Free Word Finder (Beacon Press, 1991) still claims that “for an outsider to refer to [women or young women] this way is unacceptable,” between women the word is emerging as a defiant pass to a private club. With the mainstreaming of African- American usage-“You go, girl!” and “Girlfriend!”-“Girl!” is popping up all over the place, from T-shirts in boutiques to the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist group fighting for equality in the art world. Lest they be misunderstood, some modern users of “girl” have changed the spelling. Two online examples are Cybergrrl and The Geek Boutique, moderated by Nrrdgrrl, both of which suggest a growl.
It is no longer used by corporate man to refer with (perhaps unwitting) condescension to his female colleagues, but a secret handshake that pronounces, “We control how we are represented!” The real question is: how will we react when the new breed of feminist man walks into the office and calls out, “Hiya, girls…”