Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Sorting the women from the girls

with 4 comments

Rustic Aphrodite (1859), by Georges Clère (181...
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Language is a very powerful tool. It can be used (consciously or unconsciously) to demean, insult, undermine and exclude. Male black slaves  (and, indeed, black men after emancipation) in the American south were referred to as ‘boys’. Why then, in our society in the 21st century, is it considered acceptable to refer to women as ‘girls’?

In my view, it isn’t.

But when do girls become women? It can be a bit tricky, but just use common sense.

Newsreaders on BBC Radio 4 have no problem referring to 17-year-old males as ‘men’, so in my book it’s OK to refer to females of the same age as ‘women’. Otherwise, if that doesn’t feel quite right in the circumstances, ‘young woman’ is fine, as is ‘teenager’ — although the latter is more suitable for younger teenagers. Once you’re in the territory of 18 years and above, ‘woman’ is always your best bet.

Of course, I’m not saying that phrases such as ‘a night out with the girls’ or similar, should be banned. That would be political correctness gone mad.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, referring to adult female murder victims, aged between 19 and 29,  as ‘girls’, as some news reporters did during the 2006 Ipswich murders, is astonishingly disrespectful and unacceptable. Perhaps they thought it was appropriate because the victims were sex workers. I strongly disagree.

Girls or women?

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

He or she — or they?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?


4 Responses

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  1. For me, it’s a subconscious thing I guess. I still find it awkward to refer to myself as a woman. I just don’t seem very- womanly lol. When I think ‘woman’ I get a certain image in my mind and it usually has nothing to do with age. Well- I take that back. I refer to people much older than me as being women and those closer in my age range are either ladies or girls. It’s hard to even explain the conditions that need to be met for me to consider someone a lady or a woman. When someone else refers to me as a woman I giggle in my head lol- and I will be 26 in less than a month haha. But for me it’s the same with men. The boys are younger than me or my age and don’t quite have it together, the guys are the ones close to my age and have it together and the men are older. That’s just my mental reasoning. But great article, I didn’t really think about that;-p


    23/12/2009 at 8:14 pm

  2. Hi, Kristi — thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. It is amazing how the language we use to describe ourselves and others becomes so ingrained and so difficult to change and challenge. I’m glad you found the piece interesting and thought-provoking.


    23/12/2009 at 8:42 pm

  3. The “girls” thing got me into trouble the other day. I proof-read the crossword puzzles in the paper (among many other things) and didn’t twitch enough when I saw the clue, something like “Male showing a lecherous interest in young girls”.
    The answer was “dirty old man”. Next day a pub landlord complained that his regulars, all crossword doers, hadn’t liked it.
    With hindsight, neither did I. That “girls” should have been “women” and in his old-fashioned language the crossword compiler had changed a lech into a paedophile.


    23/06/2010 at 9:49 am

    • Thanks very much, Squirrelbasket — that’s so interesting to me, both the original choice of words by the crossword compiler and the reaction of those doing the crossword, which has quite cheered me up this morning! I always find the non-corresponding word pairs very telling: male/girl and man/girl in this case. Thanks again — fascinating.


      23/06/2010 at 10:16 am

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