Guys, Gals, Grrls, and Other Slang For Women: A Broad Analysis

The Atlantic has this interesting piece by Lily Rothman about the decline of the word “gal” – despite such an analogue to “guy” being more needed now than ever – and the hope of its resurrection.

Personally, I use “guy” as a gender-neutral term all the time – male or female, everyone is equally likely to be “guy,” “dude,” or even “man,” in the “Hey, ___, what’s up?” or “___, look at that!” kinds of ways. (…But not “bro.” Never “bro.”)  Heck, I sometimes use “guys” and “dudes” as placeholder names, in the same sense as “doohickeys” or “whatsits.”  “Hand me one of those little metal guys.” “Put these dudes in the drawer for me?”

I’m sure something could be said about patriarchy there; that this blanket use of masculine terms carries some implicit assumption that all persons are male until proven otherwise, that even all humorously-personified inanimate objects are male by default, or that all things should be male, or something equally ridiculous. Nevermind that the mass-noun substitution could also be seen to objectify males just as much as it masculinizes objects.  But that’s a separate and less interesting discussion.  (As is the discussion that could be had on slang terms for females that are also terms for prostitutes, or for the female genitalia.  It’s self-evident that none of them would be an equivalent to “guy.”)

Regardless, the common current options for females do leave something to be desired. “Girl” does have those connotations of dependence and immaturity. “Woman” isn’t casual enough. And “lady” implies an elegance and sophistication that may not be present or even desirable. A lady is the counterpart of a gentleman; to presume that female-shaped-and-or-identifying humans are somehow classier, more refined, or have more genteel sensibilities than males is just a different sort of stereotype. Also, something is fundamentally jarring about a sentence like “Two shirtless guys are punching each other in the alley next to the dumpster, and there’s a lady hitting one of them with a shoe.”

I know where Rothman is coming from, but etymologically, “gal” just comes from “girl,” which makes it feel like a somewhat insufficient substitution.  It also doesn’t seem to be quite as neutral – there’s a sort of fun-loving, inherently-friendly connotation there.  “Gal pals.” Buffalo Gals, dancing by the light of the moon.  Something almost sounds contradictory about an “angry gal” or a “dour gal.” It might just be the vintage nature of the term, but I only ever think of a gal as a perpetually smiling 1940s-era woman, staring off the page of an advertisement.

Despite the musical’s suggestion, “dolls” is not a suitable counterpart for “guys,” either. A doll is a toy, a passive object that exists to be played with by others — and, moreover, one whose purpose usually falls into one of two types: infants to be nurtured, and disproportionate fashion models. In both, the doll is an object of the player’s actions, rather than a protagonist in its own right.  But if I had to be one or the other, I’d rather be called a “girl” than a “doll;” girls are at least sentient.

“Babe,” taken literally, is even more infantilizing than “girl,” though still less objectifying than “doll.”  Even after a near-century of use, it’s still a little strange that a word for babies is also used to describe sexually attractive women.  What constitutes “attractiveness” is always subject for debate, but this still makes it far too specific to be an analogue of “guy.”  You can be an ugly guy; you can’t be an ugly babe.

“Chick” is slightly better than the previous options, but still iffy. It has a lighthearted and somewhat lightheaded association, even an affiliation with commercialism, which I think comes more from its other formations – chick lit, chick flick. Chicks hang out at malls until dudes pick them up in cars that are total chick magnets.  Chicks don’t go to the library.  Chicks go to the bar – and they never have to buy their own drinks.

I’ve never quite been sure if the British slang “bird” had the same, er, flighty connotations of “chick.” But since it’s never yet caught on in the States – and since both it and “chick” might, to the pedant, be too dehumanizing – it doesn’t seem particularly viable, either.

Anything spelled wrong is right out – that means you, “gurl.”  “Girl” is bad enough; spelling it wrong and implying lazy typing or outright illiteracy is not making it the least bit better. And “grrl” only wants me to give the user a REASON to be incapable of pronouncing vowels.  It might – might – have a small window of utility for females aged anywhere from 13 to 17 or so, but it lacks credibility even for them. It’s trying to be meaningful and distinctive and tough, but only comes across as cutesy and a little desperate, the very opposite of the independent attitude it’s trying to convey.

So too with “womyn.”  The Old English “man” at the root of both “men” and “women” was basically a synonym of “one” or “anyone,” with no connotations of gender in the first place; knowing that etymology, stripping away the “man” and keeping the “wo-” seems to be missing the point.  Going back to wer-man and wyf-man for males and females would be pretty nifty, as it would acknowledge two main groups and leave “man” itself open for the gender-neutral – but it wouldn’t exactly be casual.  Politically-driven language rarely is.

“Skirt,” on the other hand, goes way too far in the opposite direction; it can stay in the old detective fiction, if you ask me. It just describes a whole person (or gender of persons, in fact,) by a single garment.  Females have been rocking the bifurcated trousers for long enough now that “skirt” is rarely even an accurate description of one’s clothing, anyway.  Given the rough timeframe when both began falling out of favor, we can go back to calling girls “skirts” when we can accurately call guys “suspenders.”

“Dame” also has that wonderful old-fashioned flair to it.  It’s a strange hybrid of high and low class.  A dame is the equal of a knight, a status of even higher import than a lady! And as such, it has the same sorts of assumptions, at face value.  Elegance, nobility, poise, grace, and all that jazz.  Used as the slang term, though, it’s much more low-down and streetwise, to the point of mild offensiveness.  I’m not sure what made it become offensive, originally – if there was an element of sarcasm, or if it was just the fact that it was a common slang term for women from a time when being a woman was seen as inferior.  These connotations don’t seem to balance each other out as much as they trip each other up.

Even more obscure, and more purely low-down, would be “moll.” The gun moll is already the counterpart to the wise guy, when it comes to 30s-era gangster slang.  But that’s a little too much inherent criminality for “moll” alone to be a useful all-purpose analogue for “guy.”  There’s also an implication of codependence – the gun moll is a partner to, or supporter of, the gangster, not quite someone who operates on her own.  No dice.

I love the word “broad” though. I can’t quite explain why. It’s similarly vintage, and even if it’s supposed to be pejorative, it’s still a great sounding word. I don’t know where it came from – broad hips, maybe?  If so, cool; nice to imply that being more than 16 inches in diameter is okay again.  That wouldn’t make too much sense, either – males tend to be broad in the chest and broad in the shoulders, so it doesn’t sound like it could be a physical term at all. Even if it was originally an invective, or at least meant to be demeaning, it doesn’t specify anything about attitude or appearance, and it therefore has… well, broader applications.  You can’t be an ugly babe, but you can be a classy broad.  Or a smart broad.  Or a strong broad, though that sounds like Rule 63 for Strong Bad. It isn’t inherently youthful, and it isn’t matronly. (Though you can be an old broad, which is rather more casual than being an old woman or an old lady, and less oxymoronic than an old girl – or an old gal, for that matter.)   Even acknowledging its history as an insult, people are trying to reclaim “bitch” as an empowering term, and that’s an outright swear!  It’s a direct insult against a person, whereas “broad” is, if anything, vaguely dismissive – and even then, not half as disdainful as “toots.”  “Broad” is less harsh and less cruel than “bitch,” which might mean it has less need to be defused and reclaimed – but it also might mean it would have more (and more meaningful) success.

To seek to ennoble the word “bitch” can be misconstrued for a celebration of “bitchiness” itself.  The very point may be that the traits that constitute unacceptable “bitchiness” in a woman are often the same traits that constitute laudable boldness in a man, but the term is much more often used to describe regular old rudeness, viciousness, and self-entitlement – sneering, snarling, and snootiness. The absurdity of the idea that women should deserve a separate word for their rudeness than men is a fair counterpoint; women certainly don’t have a monopoly on such attitudes — but I’ve rarely heard “asshole,” “pig,” or even “jerk” ascribed to a female, and for men to try to reclaim any of those words would be somewhat similarly weird. This isn’t true for “broad,” however.  A reclamation of “broad” can’t be seen as an attempt to celebrate the unpalatable behaviors or attitudes it’s used to describe, because “broad” isn’t descriptive.

At least, not in that sense.

Used more generally, “broad” is rarely a negative adjective.  It’s good to to be broad-minded, to have broad knowledge, to be unrestrained. To be broad is to be open, expansive, and it can describe both someone who has explored and the expanse of the places or concepts she’s been exploring.  To be broad is to be rife with possibilities. To be broad is to inherently defy being belittled or overlooked or disregarded; to defy being pigeonholed. It is to not only be there, but to take up just as much space as you damn well please, and to contain as much as you damn well like within yourself.  If something is broad,  with broad implications, in broad daylight, and you still can not or will not see it, everyone knows it’s because you just aren’t looking.

Broadly speaking, I think it’s a pretty good option.

But what do you guys think?

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7 thoughts on “Guys, Gals, Grrls, and Other Slang For Women: A Broad Analysis

  1. Eric says:

    I have no answers to what would be an appropriate and effective “guy” counterpart. And while I love almost all these slang terms in various circumstances, broad included (my fondness for the old-timey is well known), I just don’t know about the way “broads and guys” or “guys and broads” sounds. Granted, this is likely due to a lifetime of not hearing such things. The most pleasant thing to my ears is the dual hard g sounds of “guys and gals.” So if I had to pick a word for reclaiming and stripping of negative connotations, if any, it would be “gals” purely for reasons of assonance. Which is maybe not that thoughtful or valid a reason, but WHATEVER.

    I am known to use almost all these words at one time or another. The case of “skirt” is an interesting one. I use it only under one circumstance. When I see a male who is well known to me with a female unknown to me, I will often ask “Who’s the skirt?” I say it because I’m that kind of guy who just likes old-timey stuff, yes, but I think it might also serve another purpose. I’m demonstrating to this new person right up front that I am an abrasive guy with weird affectations, so if she doesn’t want to put up with that she won’t have to wait to find out.

    But holy cow would I ever love it if “suspenders” were slang for men. Though the fact that it’s plural is a little strange. How would you refer to just one man? “Who’s the suspender?” OH MY GOODNESS, I hope so! This needs to happen!

    As for bitch, I am put off by all the “bitch and proud of it” nonsense for all the celebrating-terrible-behavior reasons you’ve mentioned. And it is true that the “bitch”/”asshole” divide seems to fall squarely along gender lines. Personally, I almost never use either; my unisex word for such descriptions is “turd.” You could argue that it’s less effective given that it’s a safe-for-kids word while the b word and the a word are full fledged cusses, but I disagree. You hear “(s)he’s just a turd” and you know what I mean.

    Wer-man and wyf-man are definitely awesome choices since both suggest lycanthropy. So I could totally go for that.

    • Gant's Rants says:

      I, too, like the assonance of “guys and gals,” but that doesn’t seem quite enough to make up for its other mediocrities. It’s perhaps my second-favorite option, but the whole fact that it’s an elided form of “girl” in the first place just seems to not go far enough. The etymology of “guy,” on the other hand, goes back to Guy Fawkes, interestingly enough. It might be cool to have “guys and fawkes,” if we could be permitted to come up with something from nowhere! But, though a girl can already be a “fox,” it’s got the same connotations of beauty as “babe” – not to mention that the singular would be “fawk,” which might lend itself a little too much to ribaldry. If we’re open to inventing terms from nowhere, I’d possibly go with “gill.” It’s somewhere between “girl” and “guy,” and might suggest a derivation from “Gillian” much as “guy” has come from Guido. Furthermore, the most prominent Gillian in popular culture, Ms. Anderson, is an all-around solid role model for girltypes. Though there’d be the fish anatomy meaning to contend with, as well. Clearly, this shall require more pondering.

      If you’re using “skirt” in a jocular way, I’d say that you’re solid. The catch, in this instance, would be that the female in question might know nothing about you – though surely the friend she’s with would have talked some – but, regardless, she might take it at face value and presume misogyny instead of your actual universal misanthropy.

      But oh man, I like “suspender” more all the time. It’s a little polysyllabic, but you know the most obvious way to shorten it? “‘Spender!” Hey big ‘spender, indeed! I want to craft an entirely fictional etymology now.

      “Turd” is pretty good, though! It is more universal – and I think the most interesting thing about it is, it makes someone sound more like an object than as an agent. Often, when someone’s being a “bitch” or “asshole,” they’re being very active, excessively assertive, and generally selfish. To call someone a “bitch” or “asshole” is, in some small way, to validate their agency. It recognizes that the person has emotions and is performing actions, actions which have emotional effects on others – and it implies that you’re evaluating them based on that. Which, in a way, you are — but it’s not in the nature of “bitch” nor “asshole” to care. “If you think I’m a ‘bitch’ / ‘asshole,’ you’re just too sensitive,” is the common defense. But calling someone a turd doesn’t directly address their selfishness or rudeness, or even say anything about their effects on others. A turd doesn’t even have emotions at all – it’s an object, a waste product, something that doesn’t merit attention, which is what “bitches” and “assholes” tend to thrive upon the most. (Which always is ironic, given their frequent claims to be independent of others’ opinions.) If you leave a turd alone, it might end up being fertilizer, but if you agitate it, it just spreads the turditude around.

  2. Linda L. says:

    The term “guy” is male and has no female counterpart because it comes from Guy Fawkes, who was a co-conspirator in a 16th century English plot to blow up Parliament and King Charles with dynamite concealed in the lower levels of the building. Guy Fawkes was assigned to guard the dynamite overnight and was caught in the act. As the only conspirator caught, he was considered hapless, unlucky, and not too bright. Nevertheless, Fawkes was tortured and hanged, and was burned in effigy annually for hundreds of years afterward. Guy Fawkes Day, which still exists in England, still includes bonfires and the burning of effigies of famous people. The original effigies, which were male because Guy Fawkes was male, were called “Guys.” The term “guy” passed into the language as pejorative slang, and gradually came into its current meaning. There’s no corresponding female term because the original person was, well, a guy. Guy Fawkes, to be exact.

    • Gant's Rants says:

      Yeah, I was familiar with that already; Guy Fawkes’ Night and begging a “penny for the Guy,” and so on. However, the point wasn’t the lack of a female counterpart with the same history or etymology — rather, the difficulty of finding most synonymous slang term to its current meaning.

      For an interesting twist on that, “monk” and “nun” are now largely seen as male and female counterparts. However, “Monk” used to be used for both males and females, and derives ultimately from the Greek “Monos” for “alone.” “Nun,” meanwhile, comes from the Late Latin “nonna,” which meant “nun or tutor” — and it used to have its own masculine counterpart, “nonnus!” “Nonna” and “Nonnus” were used as terms of endearment for the elderly, much like “Nana.” They’re very close in meaning now, but originally, one had connotations of solitude while the other had connotations of socialization and affection!

      I wish I could stick around to see how English changes in another few centuries. Hee.

  3. Mr Broad says:

    I have never used the word broad.
    I would make an exception if describing a man with a fat ass.
    Gal, uh no
    never used that one either
    chick is OK. although it is another one that has never come out of my mouth.
    if I don’t use a person’s name I guess b**** would is my choice.
    I am from the 50’s

  4. j says:

    Thank you for the interesting article and topic! It would be funny to think of an infamous female ‘Guy Fawkes’ that could have been made into the female slang for her gender…but I am having trouble thinking of a good one, maybe a ‘Jane’…or ‘Bonnie.’ But that still wouldn’t work in a ‘hello’ context, like, you wouldn’t say “Hey, janes!” instead of “Hey, guys.” And, guy just sounds so natural, I have been calling all my female friends guys for since I can remember…fun topic, thanks again!

  5. […] attracted to it. American listeners know ‘broad’ is old-fashioned slang for woman, but it’s one of the few such words that doesn’t reduce us in some way. I loved the way Christy had made ‘broad’, well, broader than the other font, but also […]

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