OPINION: What was wrong with me calling a woman a girl?

PUBLISHED: 11:27 30 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:44 30 May 2018

The controversial poster advertising Wonderbra. Picture: Archant

The controversial poster advertising Wonderbra. Picture: Archant

All I said was ‘Hello girls’, but boy, was I in trouble.

What you say and what words one uses is a minefield these days, isn’t it?

The other week I was upbraided for using the word girls – “Hello girls. How are you?” or some such expression – to a group of adult women. Friends.

The context was one of obvious friendliness and cheerfulness.

Immediately the mood of the encounter changed as one of these women voiced her objection in such a way as to embarrass and humiliate me. Something was muttered about feminism but I didn’t really hear. I was in social shock. These things happen.

Then I took offence, for a moment. Then I calmed down.

Then I started thinking.

Am I sexist? Is there some latent sexism I displayed that I need to be aware of? I don’t think so, I hope not, but maybe? I was, to be honest, quite confused.

The use of words is important, it is how we communicate, express ideas, and engage with each other. Words and language are part of what define us as human. It is true that everyone has potential to get sensitive about the language used to describe them. I don’t much like Jim or “that large chap who writes for the newspaper” but when it happens I don’t “object” or embarrass someone, it is only words and to be called the large chap who writes for the newspaper has a certain ring of truth.

Girls does not just mean under 13s or diminutive women or non-adult women. Girls often have girls nights out, and girls nights in – adult women socialise as girls.

The word girl also means an adult woman. Indeed “Girl Power” was about female empowerment, wasn’t it?

Are these uses of those words somehow intrinsically sexist, or indeed ageist? Or is sexism a state of mind rather than a linguistic notion? Or is it both? I don’t know any more. I almost daren’t ask.

And if I daren’t ask then debate and discussion about these issues is silenced, and oppressed, for fear of causing offence. And isn’t feminism, at least partly, about calling out oppression?

It concerns me that the objection to certain words becomes little more than a matter of semantics.

Using the word girl might imply the infantilising or the patronising of women, but equally it might not. I might have simply been being friendly and neither, consciously or otherwise, creating nor reinforcing a systematic power balance in my favour.

There’s no such thing as a strict definition of a word and to police language removes the freedom to use it and develop it and express oneself in the most accurate way.

Words change their meaning over time, words fall in and out of use and favour, words can mean things we might not like, certain words can cause offence if used in a certain way and in a certain context.

This week I have been called or referred to in ways including “buddy” “pet”, “petal”,“love”, “mate”,“dude”,“guy”, “fella”, “dear boy”, “young man” but those forms of address are not something I can reasonably object to as others use those words with no malice at all. Those words are in common parlance, we haven’t agreed to stop using them yet and their meaning – although perhaps, it could be argued, broad, patronising, and gender embued – hasn’t been altered or made unusable. Perhaps they should be?

I cannot write something libellous or something that would incite racial hatred but my job is to provoke and challenge. Sometimes I get told, in no uncertain terms, that I do not know best. This is fine. And on this occasion I don’t know at all.

Although I do know this, much depends on context and tone and secondly we cannot walk around with signs on our foreheads saying “don’t call me Jim” or “don’t refer to me as a girl”. There will be times when sexism needs to be called out, but there are ways and means of doing this too which don’t, perhaps, need to be brutal.

Indeed, there is an argument that if the usage of a word needs to develop then we need to know why first and all agree before we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Should women be called girls? Are you as confused as James? What do you think? Email him at

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