I’ve decided to make one very small – but very crucial change – in my life:
I’ve stopped calling adult females, “girls”.
I’ll be the first to admit that the decision originally felt a little silly. I considered all of the, “Atta girl”s my track coach would yell. I thought of the jovial, “We’re having a girls’ night out” or, “It’s just us girls!” I thought of how the diminutive is used as a term of endearment in so many languages.
If it is not always a bad thing to use “girl” when the female in front of you (or the female in the mirror) is clearly over 18, why would I try to change the very way I speak?
While “girl” makes sense when a coach is congratulating her team or a group of friends is going for a night out, it stops making sense outside of those scenarios – the same way you’d never use the diminutive in Spanish when referring to a superior or a stranger. But here I was, talking about female celebrities as “girls”, talking about co-workers as “girls” – talking about myself as a “girl” when I am toeing in on 28.
So I stopped cold turkey. I allowed myself to fumble over my words as I nixed “girl” from my vernacular and replaced it with “woman”. I stopped mid-word to keep from saying “girl”, even if it made me look like a stuttering moron. I would even go so far as to reword a thought in my head if I started slipping into old habits.
Again, at first this seemed a bit unnecessary. Why was I letting myself sound like an idiot in order to stop phrases like, “I talked to the girl at this company…” or, “She’s the girl from…”? Why go through all this trouble when it’s socially acceptable to do what I was already doing?
The problem is, is that language shapes thought. You don’t have to attend a semantics class to recognize that the way something is worded can drastically affect how it is taken in and how people react to it.
A great example of this is what I call the “Bump/Crash” experiment. In this test — which was originally done to demonstrate how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be — researchers showed two separate groups a video of two cars getting into an accident. In one group, the testers precluded the video with: “You are about to watch a video of a blue car bumping a red car.” And the other group? They were told they were about to watch a video of, “a blue car crashing into a red car.” The differences between the two group’s reactions were startling. The “crash” group saw the accident as more severe, the red car as having taken more damage, and the blue car’s driver as being more incompetent.
Exact same video of the exact same two cars, but viewed in two completely different lights, purely because the testers replaced “bumped” with “crashed into”.
However, for this change in my life, I didn’t need to research social experiments to understand the power of words. I could tell just from how I felt when I started to use the term “woman”: each time I said “woman” over “girl”, I would get a deep, visceral reaction about and against the word.
I felt so painfully out of place using that term. Who the hell was I to use such a strong word when describing this or that female. And – furthermore – who the hell was I to use that word when referring to myself? “Girl” is sweet, “girl” is dainty, “girl” is unassuming; I had no place busting out the big guns like “woman”.
And that reaction was exactly why I needed to change. As I have already mentioned, “girl” is diminutive, but can be used as a term of affection. The same way a coach will say, “Atta boy!” at a baseball game. The only difference, here, is that “boy” feels out of place when taken out of the familiar and affectionate. In fact, depending on the situation, it can become downright offensive. We then replace it with “guy”, which carries a stronger, more masculine connotation.
There is nothing to replace “girl”. However, “girl” doesn’t magically lose its connotation of soft and unassuming when we start using it as the female counterpart to “guy”. The word simply does not carry the same type of weight. And – considering that even the subtlest shifts in language can change thought (which, in turn, shapes behavior) – this small inequity can unravel into bigger consequences.
Recently, a man (who shall remain nameless) got in trouble with his boss. His boss gave him the third degree – and rightfully so, since he had royally messed up. However, his boss was a woman. What were the first words out of his mouth when he was out of earshot from that boss?
“I’m not going to let some girl tell me how to do my job.”
People will disagree with me. People will brush off the idea that a seemingly innocuous word could ever make any type of influence. People will see this change as another example of a hyper-feminist harping on every detail in society, changing “woman” to “womyn” and burning every bra she can get her hands on. And I’m okay with that. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, man and woman alike. But I am already noticing a change in how I view the women around me (and how I view myself) and I only made the switch a mere four months ago.
Maybe some women (and men) will discover a new type of strength in nixing the word in more formal situations. Maybe others will notice absolutely no difference. Either way, none of this will stop me from using “woman” when referring to an adult – and it also won’t stop me from shouting, “That’s my girl!” when a friend finishes a race or busts a seriously sick move on the dance floor.