girls, women, gals

On Facebook, Ann Burlingham has passed on this posting (from February 1st), “Why Are We Referring to Women as Girls?” by Yashar Ali, about men referring to women in the workplace as girls. (Note: Yashar Ali is a man.)

Important qualification: The piece is entirely about language use in the workplace, where Ali argues conventions of mutual respect should hold sway. In this context it’s demeaning to refer to women as girls (while referring to men as men). In other contexts, the opposition might be between girls and boys or between girls and guys or in fact between girls and men. (I’ve posted a number of times on these words and their use in different social contexts.)

Ann noted that when you try to explain this issue to people (especially men), you’re likely to be greeted by blank incomprehension; “that’s just the way things are”, people will say. It’s just the way we talk about women and men — disregarding the many connotations of girl.

And that brings me to gal, which I thought had mostly gone out of style, until a few weeks ago when I overheard three Silicon Valley types (men in their 30s) having lunch together and talking, again and again, about the women in their workplace as gals.

The origin of gal looks pretty clear. From OED3 (March 2008):

> Representing a colloquial or regional (U.S. or southern English) pronunciation of girl n. Compare gel n.
colloq. and regional (now chiefly N. Amer.). = girl n. (in various senses) [first citation 1795]

2005   Metro (Toronto) 2 Mar. 23/2   Faux pearls in antique cream and petal pink shades, perfect whether you’re a straight ahead girly-girl or a sassy gal who wears her pearls with a wink.

Note the contrast in the 2005 cite between a girly-girl and a sassy gal: gals have style and brass.

That brings me to Our Gal Sunday. From Wikipedia:

Our Gal Sunday was an American soap opera produced by Frank and Anne Hummert and heard on CBS from 1937 to 1959.

The origin of this radio series was a 1904 Broadway production, Sunday, which starred Ethel Barrymore. This play was the source of the catchphrase, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”

The Hummerts adapted the Broadway play into a long-running melodramatic radio serial about a Colorado orphan who marries a British aristocrat.

… The show opened with this question:

Once again, we present Our Gal Sunday, the story of an orphan girl named Sunday from the little mining town of Silver Creek, Colorado, who in young womanhood married England’s richest, most handsome lord, Lord Henry Brinthrope. The story that asks the question: Can this girl from the little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?

“Red River Valley” was the series theme music.

I was oddly fond of the serial — maybe just because of the lead-in text, which tickled me.

From roughly the same time, Mary Higgins Clark’s 1931 novel Our Gal Sunday. On the Clark site:

A dashing ex-president [Henry Parker Britland IV — wealthy, worldly, and popular] and his young congresswoman bride [Sunday] become an irresistible sleuthing duo in four acclaimed stories from the Queen of Suspense.

Both pair a wealthy, successful man with a younger, plucky, clever woman.

The titles almost surely echo the expression gal Friday in my/our/his gal Friday, a variant of girl Friday. From Wikipedia:

Friday is one of the main characters of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe names the man, with whom he cannot at first communicate, Friday because they first meet on that day. The character is the source of the expression “Man Friday”, used to describe a male personal assistant or servant, especially one who is particularly competent or loyal.

… The term Man Friday has become an idiom, still in mainstream usage, to describe an especially faithful servant or one’s best servant or right-hand man. The female equivalent is Girl Friday. The title of the movie His Girl Friday alludes to it and may have popularised it.

On the movie (a famous screwball comedy), from IMDB:

A newspaper editor uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife from remarrying. Director: Howard Hawks. Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy.

In all these X Friday composites, the referent is subordinate but also competent — manifesting a kind of strength of their own. Gal (versus girl) can add a certain amount of pluck or brass — at least for people who can use the word unselfconsciously (as I cannot).

(I suspect that for those guys at Gordon Biersch, gal was a variant of girl that lacked the girly connotations for them.)

6 Responses to “girls, women, gals”

  1. Steven Levine Says:

    When I moved to Minnesota (in 1988) I was surprised to find that people here used “gal” in the manner you describe, as a variant of “girl” without, from what I could gather, the implication of child. The first few times I heard it the word stuck out for me, as I had thought it archaic. Eventually I stopped noticing it.

    So now I don’t know if I simply haven’t heard the word used in a while or if I got so used to it I didn’t take note. I’ll keep my ears open.

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    I’ve been enjoying participating in women’s tech groups/events both offline and online, and “girl” does get used in the naming of some of these groups, such as Girls in Tech and Webgrrls, as does women (Women 2.0, lots of Women’s this or that groups), chicks (DevChix and CodeChix), ladies (PyLadies), and she (She’s Geeky, She++), but I don’t think I’ve run across any “gals” group yet (or if I have it’s slipping my mind right now).

  3. thnidu Says:

    I have deliberately used “gal” as an informal term for years, ever since I became aware of the sexism inherent in calling women “girls”.

    Arnold, what is Gordon Biersch and what has it got to do with “gal”?

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