“Girl” is the most undignified language gaffe in verbal currency of English-speaking societies. In casual conversations, “girl” typically refers to women and children, while “guy” is similarly used for both men and children. Both “guy” and “girl” are conveniently imprecise terms to refer to adults and children. But while guy, originally the generic term for man, condescends to engulf baser forms, “girl,” as a juvenile term, demeans the status of the adult female. This inequality is the base insult, though it does not seem to bother many women, as they themselves use it so.

To one who is insensitive to fluctuations in language, this may come off as a petty complaint compared to the mountains of activism done for the civil rights of homosexuals. Language is alive and it evolves, one may argue, so it is just as well to allow nature to take its course. But where was such dissent when words like “nigger,” “wetback,” “oriental,” “fag,” “homo” (in the pejorative sense), “broad” and “bitch” were banned in polite usage? These are words that are also results of the evolution of language, but even the semantically insensitive must agree that they offend the mass and should not be used to refer to blacks, Mexican immigrants, East Asians, etc.

I’m not trying to split hairs or revive old feminist squabbles, but call attention to the way we speak due to our slovenly vigilance over the integrity of language.
Sexism in language is not an isolated issue. It is a symptom of our social but latent attitude. In western society there is tendency for a female sexual partner to be slightly younger than or the same age as her male partner. Naturally this tends to create a power imbalance in favor of the man. When a man talks of heterosexual courtship, it’s girls, not women, who are sought. “Woman” implies things like power, authority, independence and intelligence, while “girl” implies to some degree childlikeness, helplessness, dependence and stupidity.

A woman who claims independence and power disturbs the traditional roles of a dominant male and submissive female, but a girl who is childlike and helpless accommodates those roles and seems more attractive, cute and affectionate to the man who seeks power or control.

This has led to pet names like “babe” and “baby,” where the participant knowingly debases himself or herself in the attribution of the qualities that they carry. “Girl” is essentially a pet name that has stuck in popular usage, but unlike “baby” and “babe,” it is not reciprocal — meaning a man can call a woman a “girl” but a woman cannot call back a man a “boy,” except in cases where there is an obvious power imbalance in favor of the woman, e.g. boy-toy.

This phenomenon is not observed in Spanish, where boy/girl and man/woman are used indiscriminately. In other Latinate languages, as in English, affection to both sexes is linguistically expressed by diminutives. So in French, the diminutive suffices included masculine and feminine genders, and implied qualities of cuteness, smugness and/or physical smallness, as in “brunet” and “brunette.” In mock-Gallicized English, the diminutive discriminates against the masculine gender. So we have “dude” for males (the uninflected form) and “dudette” for females. Because of this discriminatory nature, English speakers analogize the feminine gender.

But if calling women “girls” is linguistically innocuous, it is still socially abasing, just as it is to call men “boys.” It attributes child-like qualities to fully matured females and is affronting to women, while “guy” is indifferent to men and charitable to boys. That we are reluctant to call young adults either men or women may have to do with our desire to socially depress the age of maturity while maintaining the power imbalance in sexual relationships. It therefore comes as the biggest surprise that in a society of pedophile-haters, “girl” has for the most part supplanted the standard term for adult females and elevated the status of the juvenile male.