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The Connotations Behind the Words “Boy” and “Girl”

Posted by Curt on Friday, 11 June 2010

Isn’t it interesting how, at least in American colloquial, we often refers to younger females as “girls”, from as young as two years old to as old as their 20s, perhaps longer depending on the context, and it generally isn’t perceived as insulting?  Yet to call a male a “boy” beginning around their preteens, it most certainly is regarded as insulting?  Boy and girl may be antonyms, but the connotations they give almost make it appear as if they’re totally different.

Generally, the word you’d use to refer to males goes from “boy” to “guy” to “man”, boy being the most immature, man being the most mature.  For females, it’s simply from “girl” to “woman”.  I suppose you could include “gal” in there – the female equivalent of “guy” – but it’s generally not used and regarded more or less the same as “girl” is.  Point is, an extra term is thrown in there to refer to a male’s maturity.  Why would that be?

The answer isn’t too complex.  Historically, and still the case today, maturity has been of much greater importance to men than to women.  Think of it in a more historic context – hundreds of years ago in Western societies, the male was expected to bring in a steady source of income, one sufficient to raise a family on, before he would be able to marry.  To do so, he would have to apply himself and become learned in his trade, which could take some time.  The result is that most men in such societies wound up not marrying until their late 20s, early 30s.  And indeed, the entire process of doing so is one of maturation; to conform to society in this manner, become a functional member of it, and contribute to it, thus making something of yourself in it, is a process of maturation all on its own.

As far as women went?  In such societies, youth in women was valued.  Maturity wasn’t as important, particularly given that maturity implied that individual is older.  Immaturity, therefore, was valued.  As a result, women often married young in those societies – in their teens.  And it makes sense why this was the case – in a world where infant mortality and high death rates were crippling, the reproduction of as many babies as possible was required, and, marrying young like that, gave a woman the best opportunity to birth as many children as possible in her fertile years.  It sounds very feasible to me to hypothesize that, given that youthfulness seems to be something men generally find attractive cross-culturally about women, this may very well be something innate in men, a biological adaptation, for that reason.

It might seem a bit ridiculous to speak of women in that manner – as baby making machines – but in a world where a society’s (or tribe’s) survival depended on a high output of children, it makes a great deal of practical sense and there was little one could do about it (and certainly isn’t something socially constructed by anyone, which would imply that something could have been done about it).  We’re fortunate in our having overcome a lot of the troubles which killed humans in the past and thus our ability to survive as a society without women needing to give birth to an average of something like 8 – 10 children in the course of her life, which most certainly means good, and new, things for women, and men as well.

But, despite our modernity, a lot of the connotations left in words such as “boy” and “girl” are still present as holdovers from the past.  The societal pressure for men to mature and to earn money, which historically was necessary to ensure the well being of his wife and children, is still a reality for a lot of men.  The word “guy” seems to be a more recent phenomenon, probably created specifically for that in between state a lot of teenage and college-bound males face, where they’re generally not exactly children but not exactly adults either (and aren’t yet striving to be).  But it is notable, for it’s an added qualifier of maturity for men that women do not have.

In this sense, it thus becomes much more insulting to call an adult male a boy than it would be to call an adult female a girl, and it’s not an insult to just take in stride – it is a fairly deep insult, suggesting something deficient about your character.  And this “deficiency” is certainly gendered given how it does not apply to girls at all.  And this isn’t to say that girls being able to retain more immature characteristics without as much criticism doesn’t have its drawbacks too – the entire emphasis on youth has pressured girls to spend all this money on makeup to do things like cover wrinkles, make their skin look shiny and smooth, and all that.  It’s just important to give the drawback all this has for men some attention – after all, if your only source of such things were from feminists, chances are you probably never thought of the male corollary to women’s appearance is that entire maturity, and thus income earning, attribute.  Certain balances are called for.

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4 Responses to “The Connotations Behind the Words “Boy” and “Girl””

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