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.


Anonymous said...

I do love the idea of searching for a sexism-free world.

However, I find "newspeak" to be spooky, at best. It reminds me of the truly ludicrous attempts to re-spell "women" to "womyn" or "wimmen" in order to achieve some other sense of equality.

This does not equality make. Nor is it true that by referring to a female as a "girl," that the speaker is acting ignobly.

In a world where everyone (in academia anyhow) has way too many nerve endings, would it be possible for me to say that such offense offends me and makes me feel discriminated against?

We could play that game all day long.

Anonymous said...

Since 'guys' could come from early gentleman, (they both start with a g) I would suggest lades.


Common Guys! - Common Lades!
Listen up guys! - Listen up Lades!

Let's go Lades and Guys!

Look at that lade go..


This one is special:

Get ovah in da shade ma lade

It would be a great name, and even marketable.

It is a sexism free word and expresses the coolness and personality of every 'ex' girl.

But, to be honest, my opinion is that ' girls' perfetly suit any lade..

But, the more I think of it, 'lades' is quite cool.

Hope you like it!

Unknown said...

I don't see infantile connotation in using the word "gal", which I would say is the best parallel to "guy". I don't think it is sexist either, but that is just my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

I have frequently heard and used "guys" as a gender-neutral plural, though not as a gender-neutral singular.

It does not seem wrong, to my ears, to address my wife and daughters with something like, "Let's go, guys!" And they've never complained about it.

On the other hand, I couldn't call my wife "guy."

Anonymous said...


I feel your point, but I am not proud of this creation, hard to imagine it would success - it just seems consequent.