Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What do you mean by that?


When I was a student at Mt. Holyoke--a long time ago--one of our big battles was eradicating the use of the word "girl" to refer to females past puberty. Seems kinda quaint now, but it was a big deal at the time: "Don't call me girl," "Don't call this a girls' school," etc.

I was with the program, but only half-heartedly. I saw what was wrong with calling a 25-year-old a girl, but I could never quite keep a straight face calling high school kids "women." Or "wimmin." Or "wymyn." Or whatever. One of the reasons language orthodoxy is bad is that it always leads you, sooner or later, into that kind of absurdity. Language will make a fool of you if you try to box it up.

This ancient issue has been on my mind today thanks to a couple of very different encounters with "girl." The first was listening to a news report about the situation for women in Gaza with Hamas in charge. A young woman was talking about being accosted on the street by a man who objected to her being unveiled. He told her, "Hey, you girl, cover!" and she objected to the "girl" as much as to the order to don a veil. "I'm not a little girl, I'm a woman," she said, and I was completely sympathetic to her. It's not a trivial thing, to infantilize someone in that way. It's an assault, as surely as if he had hit her or thrown a stone. I felt that familiar burn of sisterly rage as she talked.

Then yesterday afternoon I was sitting outside a coffee shop reading when a little boy, about 4 years old, walked by with his mother. I was wearing a pair of rhinestone ear cuffs. He looked at me and turned to his mother, excited. "Hey, Mommy, that girl has ice in her ears!" Being called "that girl" at 45 cracked me up even more than his fashion commentary.

Of course, it's obvious why the kid's use of "girl" is funny and the zealot's isn't--or maybe it's not so obvious. You could argue, in classic PC fashion, that the little boy's choice of word is distressing, because it's evidence that he's already being inculcated with sexism. A certain brand of language purist would say there's a parallel between his "girl"ing me and using a racial epithet. He's doing it innocently at age 4, of course, but learning the lingo is the first stage in hate training. Somewhere in his infant mind he's filed away the concept that females are to be regarded as perpetual children, even when they've got four decades on you.

Then again, maybe he figures that anybody lolling around a coffee shop, apparently jobless and unburdened by children, doesn't qualify as an adult. Most likely he just doesn't know many words, and "girl" was the only one he had available. I can't possibly know exactly what nuance of meaning he attached to "girl" at that moment. Same for the man with the veil problem. Though he was clearly angry, veil guy might well deny he had any especially offensive intent in the use of the word, and sincerely believe that. Likewise, neither of them can really be expected to know what "girl" means to me. I obviously couldn't say in the abstract what the word means, since it meant wildly different things to me in the different contexts.

The meaning of a word is never a fixed entity. It's a dynamic event constructed by all the parties involved, within the cultural and historical context of the exchange. (If you'd like to wander around that notion a while, here is a good place to start.) The burden we get along with the gift of language is a constant responsibility to negotiate meaning. Well-intentioned efforts to ban certain words, or strictly control them, are wrong-headed because they deny this basic fact about language. They are invested in a static concept of meaning that has nothing to do with real-world speech. They seek to escape from that responsibility to negotiate meaning, which is impossible outside of some universal state of Borgian mind-meld.

My point--yes, I think I have one--is that in order for us to talk to each other, we have to, you know, talk to each other. We have to ask people what they mean, and tell them what we hear. You can't stop people from insulting you by trying to take a word away from them. They'll always find another. People are clever that way.

11 comments:

Phydeaux Speaks said...

Excellent post! I would add that we also need to listen when others speak.

BitterGrace said...

Hey, Phydeaux, thanks. I thought of you while I was working on it. Let's hear it for free speech on this Independence Day.

chayaruchama said...

Indeed.
Agreed.
[I try to consider the source before getting my knickers in a twist]
Phydeaux, fascinating one, we also need to listen to what they aren't saying.
Sometimes that screams even louder...

Renee said...

"Girl" reminds me of the time my friend Mark and I were hanging out outside the building at work and joking around till we made each other laugh so hard we were sliding down the wall, and Mark said to me, wiping his eyes and shaking his head at me, still laughing, "Gimme kiss, girl," so I did. I guess it's partly about how you want to take it, yeah. But "girl" usually means affection in my personal lexicon.

Phydeaux Speaks said...

OT, but you are officially tagged

Arhianrad said...

In the circles I move in, 'girl' is most often used as Renee's said--as a term of affection, or humor. I've also used it when defining preferences: "I'm not a fruity-floral kinda girl" or "I'm an amber-loving kinda girl," in that it provides a casual tone for the statement. Very rarely have I been referred to as 'girl' in a way that raised warning flags, although once, when someone referred to me as Ryan's girl, I replied, "I'm not Ryan's girl, Ryan's my bitch, biatch." That's become a sort of running joke now, but suffice it to say, no one's ever referred to me as *anyone's* girl since. Still, context is everything.

Bozo said...

"The meaning of a word is never a fixed entity. It is a dynamic event constructed by all the parties involved, within the cultural and historical context of the exchange." Exactly.

One danger I see in well-intentioned efforts to cleanse language of sexisms is the loss of conceptual clarity. What comes to mind is the use of "their" with a singular antecedent-- e.g. "everyone has their opinion." Correct usage-- everyone has HIS opinion-- preserves the distinction between a person with one opinion and a group of people with only one opinion (which is exactly the opposite of what is probably intended). Proper usage can be preserved by using "his or her" instead, but that has proven to be awkward. So maybe we ought to surrender and let "his" remain the proper usage. Otherwise we cheapen and degrade the wonderful conceptual expressiveness of which English is capable. To paraphrase the Prince of Denmark, clarity is all.

BitterGrace said...

*Blowing a kiss to Phydeaux for tagging me a thinker*

Yeah, I use "girl" in that friendly, slangy way, too. I'm quite attached to that sense of the word. I suspect it's my youthful indoctrination, but I still bristle when it's used generically to refer to grown women.

Bozo, I completely agree, with one quibble: Why must the masculine pronoun always be the proper default? I was certainly taught so in school, but that, as we have established, was many moons ago. I admit to using the sloppy "their" in speech, but when I write I usually alternate between the singular masculine and feminine, depending on what seems most appropriate. It's unorthodox but economical. I figure I'm helping to push English out of its sexist rut that way, which is preferable to putting it in a PC straitjacket.

Mary said...

"Girl" doesn't bug me either...in fact, it can be quite nice in certain situations (like Renee's!!). In the right context, it can be a term of endearment or comeraderie. I think most of us have become pretty astute at picking up on words meant in innocent terms, and words used to degrade or demoralize. Great post, gracie! As usual, you've given me food for thought.

Arhianrad said...

oh...referring to women that work in professional capacities as 'girls' really gets me...as in "Oh, I'll have the girls take care of it" or, "My secretary's a great girl."

teeth on edge, and the bayonets at the ready in those terms...

helg said...

Thought provoking post, M!

FWIW, we do call a grown (but under 40) man as "child" here, though. And it doesn't register as demeaning. Wonder why....