Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Need a New Word

The English language, as spoken in the United States, is missing a word. Think about the ways in which we refer to the female and male members of our society. Girl/Boy; Woman/Man; Female/Male; (Ladies/Gentleman) (although Gentlewoman is preferable). But a funny thing happens on the way from elementary to middle school. The “boys” become “guys” while the “girls” stay “girls.” And this doesn’t change even as these “girls” proceed well into adulthood.

It makes me cringe when my students refer to a female classmate as a “girl” for all the standard feminist reasons, but what is the alternative? If we want to use gendered informal designations, and maybe we shouldn’t, we’re missing an informal, but non-judgmental, designation for “woman.” To my ears “doll” (as in Guys and . . .), “gal,” “grrrl,” “chick,” “chica,” “babe,” “young’un,” “shorty,” and the like are non-starters.

Feminist friends to whom I’ve posed this problem are pessimistic that a new word would do anything to change the routine practices designed to infantilize and marginalize women. Maybe. But why make it difficult for a conscious person looking for an alternative to “girl”?

So, I’m looking for a word. Preferably one syllable. Probably a fanciful (made-up) word to use trademark parlance since most existing terms are likely to be loaded with sexist baggage. Ideas?

P.S. One inspiration for the idea of campaigning for a new word is the book “Frindle,” by Andrew Clements targeted at a pre-pubescent audience. It’s a charming tale that teaches a little semiotics and reminds about the power of language. The only drawback comes at the end, in which the author presents an erroneously overbroad understanding of the scope of trademark law in relation to a newly-coined term. But let’s not forget the basic semiotic lesson – words start out their careers as arbitrary signifiers and they derive meaning from our collective agreements. So let’s amend the social contract and get a better deal for all the ____ out there.