woman

“Guys”: In Which I Unpack a Small Linguistic Pet Peeve

It came to my attention a bit ago that there is no female equivalent for the word “guy.” Hear me out, quick. If you are a young male, you are a “boy.” If you are an adult male, you are a “man.” The word “guy,” used chummily, could be a way to refer to a boy to make him feel older or to refer to a man and make him feel younger, but generally is used to describe or address males in the age limbo between being a “boy” and a “man.” Case in point: “twenty-year-old-guy” seems more suitable than “twenty-year-old man,” and definitely more suitable than “twenty-year-old boy.”

If you are a young female, you are a “girl.” If you are an adult girl, you are a “woman.” A woman can also be referred to as a “lady,” but this word seems to be less of an equivalent for “guy” and more of a pairing for “gentleman.” Though there are people who can use the word “Lady” in a relaxed but dignified way, it usually carries the general feeling of being addressed by someone elderly, or being lectured by your parents. (“Young lady…”)

It’s funny to me when straight male friends seem a little surprised or ruffled when they hear a female friend and I talking about or referring to “boys,” using that word as the descriptor. (What, you’re not all “Men”? Is this not an Old Spice ad?) The most obvious layer to this is that “talking about boys” is a cliché and is therefore pretty funny to use as a phrase. It gains a bit of salty irony stemming from the false notion presented by some media that all girls do is sit around and braid each other’s hair and “talk about boys.” By “talking about boys,” we seem to be intentionally failing our own Bechdel tests: separating ourselves from males only to talk about them, rather than our own jobs, hobbies, talents, or interests. But how do straight men refer to “dateable women”? I can’t say for sure, partially because I am not male, or a serious confidante for male friends about girls. But, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard guys use the phrase “girls,” at least some of the time.

In my recent memory, I can’t remember being upset about being called a girl, by anyone, in any context. It’s societal convention, and I’m pretty young. However, there are ways that I, and girls in general, can feel different depending on how we’re referred to. Like most women I know, I don’t walk around in constant meditation about the fact that I am female—I have cool things that people of all genders have like jobs, classes, interests, hobbies, and friends, and it’s always possible to daydream about what I’m going to do later or what’s for dinner.

The fact that my personality is defined by so many factors besides my gender, though, makes it so that most of my thoughts about my gender-times-age identity are caused by external stimuli. Some of these are nice: I feel a positive sort of ‘womanly’ from most compliments on my appearance, for example. Often, though, being called out as a woman can be a negative experience. When I am on a run and get catcalled, I am not looking for a stranger’s reminder that I am a woman, and I definitely don’t want to know that I am a desirable and physically mature woman to any grimy stranger.

Girls/women also lack the linguistic cushion between childhood and adulthood that the word “guy” provides for males. You’re a woman, mature and ready for the world, or you’re not: you’re just a girl. A “guy,” by connotation, is older and mellower than a “boy,” but still makes mistakes. He goes out with “the guys,” and they get to do vague and unrestricted “guy things.” A “girl” is young and needs to be sheltered and protected, but a “woman” needs to be mature and composed, and fully capable.

I don’t know if I’m a “girl” or a “woman.” As I’ve grown older (take this with a grain of salt, I’m twenty), I’ve realized increasingly that adulthood is not a state of having all the answers. Instead, it seems to be mostly built from making your own decisions, to the best of your ethical and rational abilities, and with composure. Even that definition is a bit idealistic—we all have days in which we are tired, or frustrated, or overly emotionally invested in something to the point where it clouds rational judgment. But even in light of this abridged definition of adulthood, I still can’t say that I’m fully “woman” or “girl.” I usually just let whoever is addressing or describing me choose their own adjective, and leave indicators of gender-plus-age out of short bios of myself. I prefer to be identified on paper for my ideas than for my gender identity, though I happily identify as female. In the limbo between girlhood and womanhood, perhaps the best thing to do is focusing on being “me.”