In & Around Language: Girl vs. Woman

Hey girl… I mean, woman.

Only a woman would pick at the minute differences that distinguish those two words, right? Not quite. Though used almost interchangeably, “girl” and “woman” connote two distinct ideas of what it means to identify as female.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “woman” is defined as “an adult female human being. The counterpart of man.” (“Man,” on the other hand, is not defined as “the counterpart of woman.” Figures.) “Girl,” however, is usually meant to signify “young woman.” Technically, those are correct. But to some, their usage in the wrong context can range from being inappropriate to just plain offensive.

At the most basic level, it’s an age thing. Many refer to females as “girls” until they are around college age, then switch to the term “young women.” When females reach the dreaded age of thirty, they are referred to as, simply, “women.”

For the sake of having a pop culture reference to work with, let’s look at HBO’s acclaimed/decried show about the lives of four twentysomethings in New York City. The main characters are routinely portrayed as whiny and careless. Like anyone who refuses to grow up, they keep stumbling, not quite coming to terms with the fact that there’s more to life than their small, racially homogeneous social circle. Perhaps not coincidentally, the eponymous title dubs these characters “Girls.”

Whether having the title speak to the blatant capriciousness that is associated with being a “girl” is a deliberate stroke of Lena Dunham’s creative genius is up to you. Her choice to equate “girls” with puerility and immaturity is not unlike tropes such as the “girl next door,” a “girly girl,” or the high school favorite “Girls Gone Wild."

"Woman,” then, serves as a contrast to this youthful depiction of females. Second-wave feminists, especially, preferred the term: they emphasized the drawbacks of using a term like “girl” when talking about females, for it implies a certain docility that they believed stripped women of control. In any case, “woman” is meant to indicate an acquired sense of maturity and self-respect that “girls” lack.

Professor of Anthropology Susan Greenhalgh believes that the “girl/woman” problem “highlights the limits of our language.”

"The terms 'male' and 'female' are gender-neutral, but not especially desirable for describing social issues, since they signal biological aspects of gender," she said in an email, because she was unavailable to meet with FM this weekend. "For college-aged 'males,' we have the helpful term 'guys,' which allows us to avoid both 'men' and 'boys.' For 'females,' there is no similar term (the comparable term, 'gals,' having gone out of fashion a long time ago), forcing us to choose between 'girls' and 'women.'"

While there may indeed be ways to add misogynistic undertones to “woman” as well, there seems to be less implicit devaluation in the term. It might have to do with how the concept of being a “woman” is also connected to motherhood—and we’re all supposed to respect our mothers. As comedian Louis C.K. eloquently puts it, being a “woman” is “when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.”

To Greenhalgh, the potential pitfalls of the word “woman” are outweighed by the term’s benefits. "Either we need to reshape the meanings of our language or we need to introduce a new term," she said. "I vote for young women to embrace the term 'woman' and work harder to create meanings around it that are positive and empowering."

More recently, however, pop culture has attempted to reclaim the word “girl” and liken it to the respectability that accompanies “woman.” One need look no further than Beyoncé’s almost annual female empowerment track release, “We Run the World (Girls),” or the Tumblrverse’s “Feminist Ryan Gosling,” which depicts “girls” as both intelligent and playful, in control and with a splash of youthful sass—the best of both sides of the “girl/woman” divide. To give you a better sense of what we mean, try a telling meme quote attributed to the sensitively imagined stud himself: “Hey girl. Derrida thinks language is fluid enough to break the gender divide, but nothing will split us apart.”

Well said, boy.